Separation, Divorce, and COVID-19: Don’t forget to update your estate plan
Recent reports suggest that divorce and separation rates are on the rise during the pandemic (with rates of separation cited as having increased as much as 20% to 57% from last year, depending on the jurisdiction). This has been in part attributed to the stresses of lockdown and worsening financial situations.
Many Canadians may not be fully aware of the legal impact that separation and divorce have upon an estate plan, mistakenly believing that there is no real difference between marriage and a common-law partnership. However, the distinction in Ontario remains important from an estate planning perspective – for example:
- A common-law or divorced spouse does not have any automatic rights upon the death of a spouse who does not leave a will, whereas married spouses take a preferential share and additional percentage of a predeceasing married spouse’s estate on an intestacy;
- A married spouse has the right to elect for an equalization of net family property pursuant to the Family Law Act on death, whereas common-law spouses have no equalization rights on death;
- Marriage automatically revokes a will (unless executed in contemplation of the marriage), whereas entering into a common-law relationship has no such impact; and
- Separation (in the absence of a Separation Agreement dealing with such issues) does not revoke a will or any gifts made to a separated spouse, whereas gifts under a will to a divorced spouse are typically revoked and the divorced spouse treated as having predeceased the testator.
While top of mind for estate lawyers, lawyers practising in other areas of law and their clients may not necessarily turn their minds to the implications that separation and divorce may have on an estate plan, particularly soon after separation and prior to a formal divorce. With the potential for family law proceedings to be delayed while courts may not yet be operating at full capacity, combined with elevated mortality rates among certain parts of the population during the pandemic, it may be especially worthwhile in the current circumstances to remind our clients of the importance of updating an estate plan following any material change in family circumstances, including a separation or divorce.
Thank you for reading and stay safe,