George H.W. Bush’s death, less than eight months after his wife’s does not feel like a surprise. We often see the death of a longtime married couple in quick succession and even have a name for it, “broken-heart syndrome” a romantic notion that two hearts are so entwined that they can’t bear to be without each other. I love it.
While it is a romantic ending to the Bushes’ time here on earth, the time between their deaths raises practical issues of estate planning. Timing is key in an estate plan and if the deaths of married partners occur within a short period of time, it can make the administration of an estate more challenging. This issue is not uncommon.
Most Trusts and Wills attempt to address this issue with a survivor clause that states that if a spouse dies within a certain period, usually 30 days, they could be treated as having predeceased the other spouse and instead of having to probate the two estates successively, the estate administration is eased into a more streamlined process.
However, for the Bushes, the survivorship provision doesn’t help, but a strong estate plan is crucial. Bush could have made use of a qualified disclaimer, where a beneficiary makes an irrevocable election to refuse to receive an interest in the property. This is especially useful for assets that the survivor doesn’t need. The assets would then flow from the deceased spouse to the alternate beneficiaries directly and avoids the surviving spouse.
Another thing to consider is changing the beneficiary designations or setting up an inherited IRA to avoid assets going to the estate of the first spouse as opposed to the beneficiaries as intended.
While spouses dying within a short time of each other may be romantic, it’s important that their estate documents are prepared for this. Engaging the appropriate advisers to help manage the process and think strategically about timing is key so that the estate plan provides clarity on how to handle a broken heart syndrome.