Friday, June 4, 2010

Divorce in New York: The Gary Coleman Lesson

I just read an article in the post about Gary Coleman and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. It won’t surprise most who know me that the fact I found most interesting is that Shannon Price, his ex-wife, made all of the medical decisions on his behalf. HIS EX-WIFE! Although it was revealed Wednesday that Coleman, and Price, had been divorced at the time of his death, the actor had given Price written permission to make medical decisions on his behalf.

Of course no one will ever know if in fact Coleman wished that his EX-WIFE would pull the plug and let him die, as she did, because he never revoked the document he executed giving her such power over his life.

In New York, pursuant to section 2981 of the New York State Public Health Law, the appointment of principle spouse as health care agent is automatically revoked upon the divorce. Now, Gary Coleman lived and died in Utah, so their laws may be different; however, regardless of the New York State Public Health Law, even in New York after you divorce, it is important to update your beneficiary designations on health care Proxies, Power of Attorney Forms, and any other financial instruments such as life insurance policies, stocks, bonds and other assets, since state law does not always offer 100% protection.

For example, the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld a case involving an award to an ex-wife of the benefits of her ex-husband’s life insurance and pension plans because he never replaced her as the beneficiary. A federal law known as ERISA pre-empted a state law that automatically revoked beneficiary designations of ex-spouses after divorce. As you can see, if a situation like this is left unattended, an unintended outcome could result.

New York precludes an ex-spouse from inheriting under a Will created during marriage, and all provisions for spouse as executor or administrator are revoked automatically as well. However, the laws vary tremendously and resolution of the matter can be further complicated where a divorce occurs in one state, but the estate plan or beneficiary designation is governed by the laws of another state or the federal government.

Bottom line, is that you should have all estate planning documents reviewed. In particular, you’ll have to review your fiduciary designations with the following questions in mind.
Who is designated as the Trustee of a Trust?
Who is the Executor/Personal Representative of a Will?
Who is the Agent under a Property Power of Attorney, Health Care Power of Attorney, or Health Care Proxy?
Who are the beneficiaries of my Life Insurance Policy, Pension and any other stocks, bonds and other assets?

Until Next Time,

Helen M. Dukhan, Esq., LL.M. @

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