Divorce’s Impact on Estate Plans in Nebraska

    On September 3, 2017, Nebraska LB 517 went into effect. The passing of this bill has resulted in the enactment of Nebraska Revised Statute §30-2333, titled “Revocation by divorce or annulment; no revocation by other changes of circumstances.” What exactly does this mean? Well, absent a court order, express terms of a governing instrument, or contract relating to the division of the marital estate, it means a few different things.
   First, a divorce or annulment revokes any revocable transfer or appointment of property made by a divorced individual to his or her former spouse, or to a relative of his or her former spouse. For instance, let's say Spouse 1 is both the owner and insured of a life insurance policy that lists Spouse 2 as the primary beneficiary. In the event Spouse 1 and Spouse 2 legally divorce, Spouse 2 is no longer treated as the primary beneficiary of said policy, assuming the contrary is not specified under the policy, by court order, or by other contractual agreement between the parties.  In this case, the provisions of the life insurance policy are given effect as if Spouse 2 disclaimed all interest in the life insurance policy. The same principle applies to accounts with payable on death designations, last wills, interests in certain trusts, pensions, retirement plans, transfer on death deeds, annuity policies, profit-sharing plans, etc.  
    Also revoked by a divorce or annulment is any revocable provision giving the former spouse, or relative of the former spouse, a general or non-general power of appointment. An individual's estate planning documents often contain such powers of appointment. Also found in estate planning documents are nominations of certain fiduciaries. Any revocable nomination of the former spouse, or relative of the former spouse, as a fiduciary or representative is revoked upon divorce or annulment. Examples of potential nominations include an executor, trustee, guardian or power of attorney.
    Next, a divorce or annulment severs any interest in property held together by former spouses as joint tenants with a right of survivorship at the time of the divorce or annulment. The former spouses then become equal tenants in common.  What does “joint tenants with a right of survivorship” mean? Let’s say you have Spouse 1 and Spouse 2 and they own property together as joint tenants with a right of survivorship. Now if Spouse 1 dies, Spouse 2 automatically obtains the percentage of the property previously held by Spouse 2. Now what about “equal tenants in common”? Now you have Spouse 1 and Spouse 2 and this time they get a divorce. Upon the divorce, Spouse 1 and Spouse 2 both have equal shares in the property, and upon the later death of one spouse, the surviving spouse no longer has a right to the deceased spouse's interest in the property. Again, it is important to note that these are default rules absent express terms of a governing instrument, court order, or other property settlement agreement.  Also, unless there has been a writing declaring the severance and the writing was noted, registered, filed, or recorded in appropriate records, this severance does not affect a purchaser’s interest in the property so long as the purchaser purchased it for value and in good faith relied on the fact that the title was in survivorship in the survivor of the former spouses. 
    Also, it is important to note that a decree of legal separation is not considered a divorce or annulment for purposes of this statute. Moreover, provisions revoked solely by this statue are revived by the divorced individual's remarriage to the former spouse or by nullification of the divorce or annulment.
    How are third parties affected by this statute? A third party is not liable for making payment or transferring property to a beneficiary designated in a governing instrument that is affected by the divorce, annulment, or remarriage, or for taking any other action in good faith reliance on the validity of the governing instrument, before such third party receives notice. If a third party receives written notice of the divorce, annulment, or remarriage, the third party then becomes liable for payments or action taken regarding the property after said notice.  Finally, a former spouse, relative of a former spouse, or other person who received, without giving value in return, a payment, an item of property, or any other benefit to which that person is not entitled under this section is obligated to return the payment, item of property, or benefit, or is personally liable for the amount of the payment or the value of the item of property or benefit, to the person who is entitled to it.