The idea of our freedom to dispose of our estates as we wish is right up there with baseball and apple pie as an American ideal.  With a few limited exceptions, you can leave your assets to anybody you choose in whatever way your choose.  This post addresses one of those exceptions – married individuals have a right to inherit from their spouses regardless of the terms of the deceased spouse’s will.

This exception usually arises in one of two situations.  The first is where an individual prepares a will that does not include their future spouse, then gets married.  If that spouse dies without executing a new will, then the old will remains in effect.  That means the surviving spouse is not included in the will!  This is often an unintentional omission because the deceased spouse planned to change his or her will to include the new spouse, but didn’t do so.

The second situation is where one spouse intentionally omits the other spouse from his or her will, meaning the individual executes a will after getting married but leaves nothing (or almost nothing) to the surviving spouse.  No need to speculate here about the rationale behind this omission.

In both of these situations, the law provides an opportunity for the surviving spouse to claim a portion of the deceased spouse’s property.  There are differences in the portions that the surviving spouse can claim in each of these situations, but this article will not delve deep into those details and all of the “it depends” scenarios.  Anybody in that situation should promptly discuss their specific facts with a knowledgeable attorney.

Individuals can waive their rights to claim a portion of their spouse’s estate.  This waiver can be included in a valid prenuptial agreement or midnuptial agreement.  Individuals can also waive their right to inherit by intestacy in case their spouse dies without a valid will.  To be valid, the waiver must be specific and must be in writing – verbal agreements or waivers are not enforceable.

If you live or work in the central Pennsylvania area, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding communities and would like to discuss Estate Administration following divorce or any other family law or estate planning or administration issue, please contact me.