Divorces can take years and there is always the possibility that a party in a divorce case may die during the divorce. This means the divorce will not be finalized and then the marital estate remains unsettled and undistributed. What happens when a husband or wife dies during a divorce?
In Illinois, when a party in a divorce dies, the case is dismissed at the next court date. When there are not two living parties to a divorce, there is no divorce.
So, when a death happens during a divorce there are still numerous unresolved issues regarding the marital estate that need to be addressed and resolved. These issues can no longer be resolved in domestic relations court and are, instead, addressed in probate court.
Illinois’ probate law works completely differently from Illinois’ domestic relations law. Probate law is not concerned with marital versus non-marital assets. Illinois probate law says that you’re not divorced until you’re finally divorced. So, in Illinois, you are the spouse of the deceased until the divorce is finalized and will be treated as a full spouse such under the law so long as you’re married.
What If your spouse did not leave a will?
If the deceased spouse did not leave a will the legal term for that situation is “dying intestate.”
In Illinois, the law regarding spouses that die intestate is very simple.
“If there is a surviving spouse but no descendant of the decedent: the entire estate to the surviving spouse.” 755 ILCS 5/2-1(c)
If your spouse has no children and is still married to you, you get everything your spouse had in his or her name or possession
If your spouse has children (it does not matter if they are your children or children from a different relationship your spouse had), the rule is still quite simple:
“If there is a surviving spouse and also a descendant of the decedent: 1/2 of the entire estate to the surviving spouse and 1/2 to the decedent’s descendants per stirpes.” 755 ILCS 5/2-1(a)
“Per stirpes” means there the children have to figure out who gets what amongst themselves. But, the surviving spouse gets half no matter which kid gets what.
What If your spouse did leave a will?
If the deceased husband or wife did leave a will, then the spouses property will be distributed according to the will’s instructions…unless you object.
The surviving spouse will have the option to “renounce the will.” This means that if a surviving spouse does not agree with the way the deceased’s will allocates the deceased’s property the surviving spouse can choose a statutorily mandated alternative allocation.
“If a will is renounced by the testator’s surviving spouse, whether or not the will contains any provision for the benefit of the surviving spouse, the surviving spouse is entitled to the following share of the testator’s estate after payment of all just claims: 1/3 of the entire estate if the testator leaves a descendant or 1/2 of the entire estate if the testator leaves no descendant.” 755 ILCS 5/2-8(a)
What if your spouse declared someone else the beneficiary of his or her retirement benefits?
Most 401k or retirement plans require a spouse to sign a waiver to allow you to designate a different beneficiary that is not your spouse. If you have signed a waiver, then the beneficiary status trumps whatever a will says.
At this point we are well beyond my focus, family and divorce law. I would strongly recommend a probate attorney to investigate your rights in this scenario.
What if your spouse named someone else the beneficiary of his or her life insurance?
If your spouse named someone else a beneficiary or their life insurance policy then the beneficiary will get the proceeds of that policy not matter what any statute or will says.
“The designation in accordance with the terms of any insurance…shall not be subject to or defeated or impaired by any statute or rule of law governing the transfer of property by will, gift or intestacy” 755 ILCS 30/1
Again, I am not focused on probate or insurance law so I recommend contacting someone with practical experience as to how disputes in these matters are handled.
What if you are already divorced and your ex-husband or ex-wife dies?
It’s a frequent occurrence where a divorce will be finalized but some issues will be “reserved.” Reserving an issue essentially means that both parties agree to deal with the reserved issues later. For example, I reserved the sale of every house in divorces from 2008 to 2011 because the real estate market was so bad at the time that a forced sale would have hurt all of the parties.
If the divorce has reserved issues and one party subsequently dies, it is possible to go back to divorce court.
“The death of a party subsequent to entry of a judgment for dissolution but before judgment on reserved issues shall not abate the proceedings.” 750 ILCS 5/401(b).
So, unresolved divorce issues can proceed against the estate of the deceased. I have never seen a post-death divorce action in an Illinois domestic relations court and would expect the divorce court to refer you to Probate court despite this clause in the domestic relations statute. Specifically, almost every divorce decree contains a clause saying that the parties waive any claim against the state of the other party.
As to children, if one party dies, the surviving parent has all of the parenting time and all of the parenting responsibilities. The parents of the deceased party may petition for visitation with their grandchildren once their own child has passed.
Additionally, most obligations stemming from a divorce will end upon the death of a party.
Maintenance (formerly known as alimony) always stops upon death of either party.
“[T}he obligation to pay future maintenance is terminated upon the death of either party.” 750 ILCS 5/510(c)
But, death does not release the obligation to pay maintenance if an order for life insurance had been entered earlier in the case. “Any termination of an obligation for maintenance as a result of the death of the obligor, however, shall be inapplicable to any right of the other party or such other party’s designee to receive a death benefit under such insurance on the obligor’s life.” 750 ICS 5/510(c)
Per the statute, Child support may continue after death as well but there’s no life insurance requirement. This would be a claim against the estate of the deceased parent.
“An existing obligation to pay for support or educational expenses, or both, is not terminated by the death of a parent. When a parent obligated to pay support or educational expenses, or both, dies, the amount of support or educational expenses, or both, may be enforced, modified, revoked or commuted to a lump sum payment, as equity may require, and that determination may be provided for at the time of the dissolution of the marriage or thereafter.” 750 ILCS 5/510(d)
An important thing to know about child support after the death of a parent is that the claims period is so short. You have the lesser of (i) 6 months from publication of the notice to creditors normally filed shortly after the case or (ii) 2 years from the date of death. Given the short time frame in which to file a claim, the living parent needs to move quickly to protect the rights of the minor children.
You can even request the court to order the estate of the deceased parent to pay for the college expenses of a child. “Upon a petition filed before or after a parent’s death, the court may award sums of money out of the decedent’s estate for the child’s support or educational expenses, or both, as equity may require.” 750 ILCS 5/510(e)
The child can also file, themselves, for contribution to their college expenses but only if both parents are dead. “In the event of the death or legal disability of a party who would have the right to file a petition for contribution, the child of the party may file a petition for contribution.“ 750 ILCS 5/513(i)
If your spouse’s health is poor and you’re concerned they may die before the divorce is finalized, triggering all the probate laws we’ve discussed above you can ask an Illinois court to bifurcate the divorce. That is, the court will grant you the actual divorce but reserve all the other financial issues. Bifurcations are granted only in extreme circumstances like a pending death.
If your spouse has passed or you’re concerned that your spouse may soon be deceased and you’d like to learn more, contact my Chicago, Illinois law office to schedule a free consultation.
If your spouse has passed and you need to initiate probate proceedings please contact attorney Mario Correa. Mario’s office is just 6 miles from my office. Directions below: