Money Talks, So Should You

Q&A: Is the spouse automatically the recipient of assets in the event of death?

Maura Griffin
by Maura Griffin, The Garrett Network  (@mauragriffin)

Not necessarily, but there are some specific moves that can ensure that most assets pass automatically to the spouse. Everything that can be titled jointly -- as in that unwieldy phrase, “joint tenants with rights of survivorship” or JTWROS -- will pass automatically. Life insurance with the spouse as beneficiary also goes directly to the survivor, avoiding probate court.

It gets sticky when an asset, such as a car, is titled in only the owner’s name. That must go through probate even if the will instructs it to go to the spouse. Bank accounts that are held in only one name face the same fate. Jewelry, furniture, and art are commonly caught in probate.

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Probate is legal process, supervised by a court, that aids in the process of transferring a deceased person’s assets to the people who are to inherit them as well as to pay debts and taxes. Probate isn’t always required -- it depends on what the deceased person owned.

Smart moves for a smooth transfer after a death include creating a revocable living trust, which can hold all assets including antiques, autos, jewelry, and real estate. Another way to ensure that assets pass directly: title all accounts and assets either as “In Trust For” or JTWROS, or add a “Transfer on Death” designation to solely titled accounts. Life insurance that has an estate or trust as a beneficiary must go through probate, even if the ultimate beneficiary is the spouse.


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Maura Griffin, CEO and principal of New-York-City-based Blue Spark Capital Advisors LLC, concentrates on helping women, men and their families make smart financial decisions. Maura graduated from Georgetown University with a B.A. in literature and earned her M.B.A. at Columbia University.