The recent deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade highlight an intriguing area of the law:
Upon marriage, spouses are given a bundle of rights that were previously unavailable to them in their single status with their partner. In fact, it is estimated that there are approximately 1,138 laws in which marital status provides an enormous amount of rights and privileges. These rights are as wide-ranging as Social Security benefits to spousal privilege in court to inheritance rights.
However, many couples separate and never initiate a divorce much less finalize a divorce. Until a final order of divorce is signed, the couple enjoy all those marital rights, though. Separation does not mean your spousal rights are immediately extinguished.
Bourdain and Spade were both separated from their spouses at the time of their deaths:
But now after his untimely death, it brings up an odd aspect – his estranged spouse is his beneficiary. She will be the owner of his legacy. And in terms of immediate issues, she controls his body and his funeral.
I was involved in a one estate administration where I represented a daughter of a man that had died. Unfortunately, he died in the middle of a divorce litigation. The parties had even signed settlement agreements and submitted those agreements to the court. Unfortunately, those agreements were sitting on the judge’s desk when the man died. The next morning, the surviving wife filed a motion to dismiss the divorce proceedings. She successfully later claimed ownership of most of his assets.
In Alabama, separation is not practically recognized. Absent a pendente lite order, a separated couple are legally treated as perfectly happy.