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Do you know what will be yours when your spouse passes?

Time and time again, the same scenario rears its ugly head: estate planning was put off until it was too late and, upon the first spouse’s passing, the surviving spouse learns that all isn’t well in their world.

Titling of your assets is imperative. Just because you’re married does not mean that you will inherit your spouse’s interest upon death, especially when it comes to real estate. One of the hardest parts of my job is being the bearer of bad news. At least twice a year I am forced to explain to a grieving spouse that, because her husband died without a Will, and with the real estate in his sole name, the property not only must pass through probate but also will be distributed through Pennsylvania’s Intestacy law. I am met with stunned silence, then disbelief followed by anger and outrage. “You mean to tell me that my house isn’t MINE?!”

Of course, the outcome depends on the circumstances and family dynamic. Pennsylvania Intestacy law tells us who inherits our assets in the event we die without a Will. Are we survived by a spouse? Children? Are the children a product of your relationship with your spouse or from a former relationship?

All of these things matter, but one thing that doesn’t is whether you had a relationship with your family members before you died. No argument will be effective to disinherit Johnny even though he hasn’t been in your life for 20 years. It sounds so Do you know what will be yours when your spouse passes? simple, but it’s truly important. Check the way each of your assets are titled, such as individually owned, jointly owned and beneficiary designations (primary and contingent). Keep in mind that real estate can be owned in various ways. Don’t assume it’s properly titled or that beneficiary designations carried over upon your bank being merged with another.

The designation forms must be reviewed and updated to ensure that the person you wish to receive the funds are accurately identified. Many of the change forms can be found online. Remember, when you are leaving an asset to someone who is collecting governmental benefits (Social Security, Medicaid, VA) or if the beneficiary has a trust or is a minor, the appropriate verbiage must be used when identifying them and their trusts. In an ideal world, we would all sit down with an estate planning professional to confirm all of your wishes are in writing, titling is properly done and the verbiage of your beneficiary designations is accurate.