When fashion designer Kate Spade and chef/author/storyteller Anthony Bourdain each committed suicide in early June, they left behind grieving family and fans from around the world. They also left behind complicated estates.

Both Spade and Bourdain were separated from their spouses, and at least in Bourdain’s case it was a permanent separation, according to a recent article in Forbes. Because neither officially divorced their spouse, it has led to a litany of estate planning issues.

If you are separated from your spouse, keeping your estate in order in the event of death or divorce can be a tall order. Bourdain and Spade offer cautionary examples.

Owners and Executors

If your estranged spouse dies, your situation will be similar to what Bourdain’s widow and Spade’s widower faced after their deaths. Without an official divorce decree, you might own and be in charge of your late spouse’s estate because estranged or not, in most states a surviving spouse is granted privileges that cohabitating couples don’t enjoy.

First, an estranged spouse is the deceased’s beneficiary. Bourdain and Spade’s surviving spouses are also the owners of their late spouses’ respective legacies, Forbes says. More to the point, in most cases they’re also in charge of the body and funeral arrangements.

In purely monetary terms, your surviving spouse could be in line for Social Security benefits, and if the house is in both of your names, the surviving spouse can stay in it or sell it as they please.

Division of personal property, even if your split wasn’t exactly amicable, you should follow the deceased’s wishes as laid out in their will. That isn’t always the case, but if you find yourself in this situation, we encourage you to follow the will – especially if there are children involved. Better to err on the side of caution than irreparably split family bonds.

Everything In Order

If you don’t want your estranged spouse to plan your funeral – or deal with significant health issues – you should have a new healthcare directive in place. In this document, you aren’t legally bound to name your estranged spouse as your health care agent, and you can record your funeral and burial wishes.

Changing beneficiaries on life insurance policies, retirement plans or personal property are other items that need close scrutiny and possible changes. Beneficiaries could be children, an alma mater or a favorite charity.

To make sure your wishes are carried out you need to be organized and have copies of all the relevant estate documents which were prepared for you. This will help avoid any confusion or ambiguity that may arise.

We also advise that as a surviving spouse, you hold off on making major financial decisions for at least one year. Waiting helps ensure that you don’t do something that will give you buyer’s remorse. If you need to make a major financial move, we can help you make an informed decision from a legal, and tax advantage strategy standpoint, and we can direct you to an objective third party professional financial advisor to weigh the pro and cons of a move.

Prepare for the unexpected. A will, power of attorney and healthcare directive take most of the guesswork out of the unexpected. Your family should know – in general terms – what these documents say. Finally, you need to keep your plans up to date, staying abreast of any changes in the law that might change your plans.

With proper planning, an estranged spouse’s death doesn’t have to leave the survivor in the dark.

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