201711.14
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When One Spouse Dies in the Middle of a Divorce

Dying For a Divorce

Arthur and Patricia Sweatt were going through a divorce after 36 years of marriage. Sadly, Patricia was also terminally ill. In the middle of their divorce, she filed a motion to “bifurcate” the proceedings. What this means in plain English is that she wanted to have the divorce made final while she was still alive, even before the Judge decided all the terms. Divorce courts do not usually split divorce cases like this but there are exceptions.

The reason why she wanted this is that their divorce trial would involve a fight over the division of the assets. As you can imagine, this issue often requires a lot of court time to decide. Such hearings are therefore often scheduled far out in time, as the court calendar allows. On the other hand, the simple decision to grant a divorce takes little time.

Timing Can Make A Huge Difference

In this case, Patricia had a reason to want the divorce approved before she died. Although the court record does explain, we can take an educated guess. Her adult daughter, presumably through a prior relationship, was likely the beneficiary of her estate. If the divorce occurred before Patricia died, the Judge would award her a portion of the marital estate, which she would, in turn, pass on to her daughter. On the other hand, if Patricia died before the divorce, then Arthur might get everything and the daughter nothing.

The Judge agreed to make the divorce final and scheduled a later date to decide how he would divide the assets. In between those two events, Patricia passed away. Her daughter, as the likely executor of her estate, took over in her place. Arthur then went back to Court and argued the divorce was not truly final. He argued the divorce was “abated,” meaning it ended when his wife died with no final divorce.

The Judge Has the Power to Divide Up the Processs

The Judge rejected this argument and the Supreme Court upheld that decision. The Courts upheld the precedent that a Judge has the power to make a divorce final even before dividing the assets.