What happens to an estate plan if both spouses die

People in North Carolina might be aware that the death of George H. W. Bush, the former president, occurred just eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara Bush. The two were married for decades. It is not unusual for spouses who are married for a long time and who have a close marriage to both die within a short time period. While it is likely that the Bushes were careful in their estate planning, the death of both spouses in quick succession can cause some issues.

What can happen is that when the first spouse dies, much of that spouse’s estate passes to the surviving spouse. The other spouse may die just months, weeks or days later. Some estate plans have a provision in place that if the surviving spouse’s death happens within a few days or weeks after the first spouse’s death, the two estates do not have to go through probate separately. In the case of longer gaps, there could be a qualified disclaimer in place. This would allow the surviving spouse to let some or all assets pass to the next level of beneficiaries.

It is important to quickly change beneficiary designations after a spouse’s death. Otherwise, if the surviving spouse dies, the assets may become part of the estate and have to go through probate.

Couples should not assume that this is only an issue for older people. An accident could mean that even two young and healthy people die at nearly the same time. People who are creating an estate plan may want to discuss these concerns with an attorney and learn how to address them depending on their personal situation and assets. A couple may want to create a trust that passes assets directly on to beneficiaries instead of going through probate.