Are you aware of what happens to your will when you get married? Are you sure about what happens to your will if a marriage ends in divorce? As with so many things in the law surrounding grants of probate, the answers will surprise you.

In fact, we are finding that more often than not, it is not the person themselves who finds out the answers. The truth usually is discovered by the grieving family of a person who has died when they come to apply for probate of the will, and it is often an unpleasant surprise at an already difficult time. 

The short answers are:

  • Marriage cancels a will; and
  • Divorce does not.

Which really does seem to be entirely backwards to what common sense would dictate.

Marriage cancels a will

We recently had an unfortunate case where a client and her de facto partner had been together for many decades. She made a will leaving almost her entire estate to her de facto partner many years before she died. However, as she became ill leading up to her death, they decided, as a romantic gesture, to get married and did so to the delight of their friends and family, never dreaming it would have any effect on their already carefully prepared legal paperwork.

The lawyers found out she had been married only after she died when the family prepared to apply for probate. Even though she had married the person who was in the will, the will was automatically cancelled, and the court treated her as having no will at all.

Thankfully, because of the setup of their assets and the size of her estate, the rules governing people without wills meant that almost the exact same division of assets occurred as would have occurred in the will, but that won’t always be the case. In many cases, the effect of the rules governing people without wills may be very different from what the person decided in their will.

You can avoid this issue by inserting a clause in the will that says specifically that you are expecting to get married to a particular person and that this shouldn’t cancel the will if it does happen. Still, even wills made by lawyers who carefully consider your situation won’t generally include this unless you specifically discuss your plans to marry in the near future.

The best solution is to update your will on a regular basis, especially as your circumstances change, and to discuss regularly with your lawyer what your upcoming plans are and what your wishes are so that the lawyer can make sure your will caters for all likely eventualities.

Divorce does not cancel a will

Given that many wills leave the entire estate or a large part of it to a marriage partner, separating or divorcing that partner would seem a sensible time for a will to be cancelled. However, neither separation nor actual divorce cancels a will.

They do, however, have an effect on the will under some circumstances. If, for example, the couple have an order from the court formally dissolving their marriage, then the will is read as if the divorced partner died before the deceased partner (even though they are in fact still alive, just divorced) in the places where the divorced partner is appointed a trustee or given a gift under the will. 

This at least means the divorced partner doesn’t receive their gifts and aren’t put in charge of running the estate, but often leaves awkward holes in the will if there isn’t a backup provision in the document.

It also only works with the correct paperwork in place; we have seen many difficult cases where a couple has been separated, sometimes for decades, but never formally divorced. The will was also never updated. So the divorced partner is still entitled to everything the will leaves to them.

Civil Unions

Civil unions follow exactly the same rules as marriages.

De facto relationships

Entry in and out of de facto relationships does not affect the will’s validity whatsoever. That can often create very unsatisfactory results, especially when wills are not updated over a long time.

Conclusion

Other laws (particularly those surrounding property and relationships) assist with this situation. In cases where wills are accidentally cancelled, the outcome is at least somewhat more in line with what we would expect. Still, they often aren’t exactly what the deceased wished and come at the cost of extra time, stress and legal fees that are unwelcome, to say the least.

Families can also sign documentation to agree to do things differently in an estate. Some family members sometimes sign away their interests, but this relies on people’s sense of moral obligations and only works if everyone agrees and is willing to sign the documentation.

As with so many rules in the world of probates, these rules were put in place often a hundred or several hundred years ago when the situation in society was very different. In the case of marriage, it almost always occurred at the very beginning of a relationship, at least in terms of financial interdependence, whereas nowadays, that is rarely the case. Divorce was so rare that the lawmakers didn’t even feel it needed to be mentioned. Although a lot has changed in our society since those days, not an enormous amount has changed in probate law.

Whenever your relationship status changes or is due to change, spare a thought for your probate application and see your lawyer, who can guide you through the surprising byways that you must traverse; your family will thank you for it. 

For more information

If you find yourself faced with one of these awful surprises after a loved one has died, we have a whole team of experts who can unravel the confusion and re-build the last wishes in the will as best as is possible to do; so give Jenny Lowe a call on 04 916 0153 or email jenny.lowe@morrisonkent.com. Jenny is one of few legal specialists in New Zealand for reseals, probate and letters of administration applications.

Your wedding day and you estate | Morrison Kent