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'Broken-heart' syndrome and estate planning

The recent passing of President George H.W. Bush less than eight months after the passing of his wife serves as a good example of what some in Colorado believe to be "broken-heart" syndrome, in which loving spouses die within quick succession of one another. While "broken-heart" syndrome may seem to some to be a mere romantic fancy, there are very real estate planning issues that will arise when only a brief period of time passes between two spouses' deaths. This is particularly true when it comes to beneficiary designations.

For example, when one spouse dies, does the estate pass directly to the surviving spouse, and then to the next generation of beneficiaries when the surviving spouse dies? Or, when one spouse dies, does their estate pass not to the surviving spouse, but to their next generation of beneficiaries instead? An estate plan should clearly address these details, perhaps in a will or trust.

In addition, certain assets, such as a retirement account have a beneficiary designation. Oftentimes the account holder names their spouse as the primary beneficiary and their children as contingent beneficiaries. However, if the account holder dies and their spouse dies shortly after, the second spouse may not have had a chance to roll their partner's accounts into their own. If this happens, it could lead to a situation in which the account will be deemed to have no beneficiary, and it will become part of the probated estate, which is likely not what the account holder would have wanted.

So, while "broken-heart" syndrome may seem romantic, there are real consequences with regards to estate planning when spouses die quickly within one another. Being prepared with a will or trust, and quickly rolling over accounts when one spouse dies, can help families avoid such complications during a difficult time in their lives.

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