Why, you might ask, would marriage or divorce have anything to do with your Will? Why indeed! The reality is that only about one in two Australians, whether married or divorced, have a valid Will. Of those who do, many haven’t looked at their Will since they signed it, and perhaps have forgotten what it says. And they’re likely to be unaware of the unintended consequences that marriage and divorce can have on their otherwise valid Will.

In Australia, laws relating to marriage and divorce are made by the Federal government. Wills are governed by State and Territory laws. While similar, there are some important differences from State to State or Territory.

Marriage and your Will

Getting married is a time of joy, looking forward to a long life together, not a time when you want to be thinking about the end of your life. But when preparing to promise to be together until “death do us part”, you need to also think about what will happen when death does, in fact, part you. This is particularly important in the case of second marriages and blended families.

In general terms, marriage revokes a Will. That is, by saying “I do” you invalidate your Will. If you die without making a new Will, you could be leaving it up to the government, not you, to decide how your estate is distributed. If there’s just you and your new spouse in your family, perhaps that’s okay. But in today’s world, that’s often not the case.

There are some exceptions to the rule that marriage revokes a Will. NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and the Northern Territory allow appointments of your spouse as executor and gifts to him or her in your Will to remain valid after a marriage. However, the rest of your Will would be revoked. That means some of your wishes may not be followed in the event of your death.

In ACT, South Australia and Western Australia even gifts to your spouse or appointing him or her as executor would be revoked by your marriage. The Will as a whole would be invalid.

It is possible to make a Will in contemplation of marriage – of a specific marriage or of marriage generally – which would still be valid after a subsequent marriage. Alternately, you could have Wills prepared to be signed at your wedding, immediately after signing your Marriage Certificate. Not very romantic, perhaps, but pragmatic.

Divorce and your Will

Generally, divorce treats a reference to your former spouse in your Will as if he or she died before you. That is, the rest of your Will would still be valid, but your ex-spouse would not be appointed as executor and would not receive anything from your estate, regardless of what the Will says. However, there are some exceptions to this, which differ throughout Australia.

Firstly, except in Tasmania, if the Court finds that the deceased intended for his or her ex to receive a gift from the estate or be appointed as executor notwithstanding their divorce, that gift or appointment would still be valid. In South Australia, that intention must be expressed in the Will. Elsewhere, the Court may be satisfied about the deceased’s intention through other evidence. Of course, that opens up the possibility of a Court battle about the deceased’s intentions. Not what anyone would want to happen after their death.

Secondly, if your Will appoints your former spouse as trustee of a trust to benefit people including his or her children, in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and Queensland that appointment would still be valid, despite your divorce. Be aware that this relates to a trust created by your Will whose beneficiaries could include people other than your ex-spouse’s children. After your divorce, would you really want that to be the case?

Finally, the laws about the effect on a Will of the ending of a marriage relate only to divorce or annulment, not separation. That is, if you separate but remain married, your Will would take effect as if you and your spouse were still happily living together. Would that really reflect your wishes?

Divorce and your Will – Isn’t a property settlement enough?

So, you’re divorced, you’ve had a property settlement and you’ve even made a new Will. Leaving aside child support, that’s the end of your financial obligation to your ex, right? Wrong.

Some Australian States and Territories allow former spouses to go to Court and seek part of the deceased’s estate, regardless of the terms of the Will. NSW, ACT and South Australia allow such a claim, even if you have already finished a family law property settlement and your ex was not dependant on you when you died.

In Tasmania, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, your former spouse needs to have been receiving maintenance or otherwise dependant on you at the time of your death to be able to claim on your estate. Victoria only allows such a claim to be made if, by the time of death, the deceased and his or her ex-spouse had not started or finished a family law property settlement.

If you are separated but not yet divorced, the situation about whether your estranged spouse can make a claim on your estate is even more complicated.

Conclusion

Marriage and divorce can have unintended consequences on your Will. When preparing to sign your Marriage Certificate, you also need to prepare to sign a new Will. Similarly, if your marriage didn’t turn out to be “happily ever after”, when thinking about dividing your assets while you’re alive, you should also turn your mind to the distribution or protection of your assets after your death.

If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on (02) 9502 2922 or email advice@falzonlegal.com.au.