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When a spouse dies before the divorce is final

It’s hard to pin down life in a single definition. Family structures are complex and unpredictable. One never knows what’s going to happen – but the law is set up assuming you have a traditional arrangement. It doesn’t happen often, but if a partner dies before a divorce is finalized, it creates an unusual situation where the soon-to-be ex-spouse instead becomes a widow.

Social norms are defined by terms and situations. When survivors don’t know what to call themselves, it leads to what social workers call “disassociated grief,” not knowing where to place one’s emotions after an incident. Besides the uncomfortable questions, there are implications from the awkward legal status.

What community property means

California is one of several states to define your assets in relation to your marital status. Called community property, it means that the property you accrue in marriage is owned evenly by both partners. There is no distinction for separation, estrangement or divorce procedures. While sometimes a couple may split up and not follow-through with the paperwork for decades, this oversight can have real costs. By law, the couple is married and property is shared, even if they don’t live together.

Based on the state’s probate laws, anytime a spouse dies without a will, their partner will become the primary benefactor. Their legal status at the time of death is what matters, even if a divorce is in progress. Beneficiary plans on deeds, insurance policies and retirement plans are another potential issue.

Avoiding future complications

There are many reasons why couples delay a divorce. If you think you can still make it work, it’s worthwhile to try. However, many times people simply don’t wish to go through the inconvenience of the divorce process. In truth, completing the act is important to avoid serious headaches later in life.

In the article about disassociated grief, linked above, the Washington Post headline asks, “What happens when a spouse dies in the middle of a divorce?” The answer, legally speaking, is that the divorce doesn’t happen.