If a spouse dies during a
divorce case the general rule is that the case is finished. There are some exceptions
to the general rule but for most circumstances the court when presented
with a death certificate will mark the case as concluded. The legal phrase
is that the case is "abated by death". At that point there will
be no more court conferences, trial, further discovery,
custody disputes and
child support and
maintenance obligations since all proceedings are ended.
The parties will never be divorced, however there may still be some possible
claims against the estate of the deceased if there are judgments that
are unpaid or other payments past due that were never made.
If the clients have fully concluded a trial or have signed their settlement
agreement and grounds for divorce were consented to, the court may enter
the final judgment of divorce if the act is "ministerial" meaning
that it is essentially the processing of paper work by the clerk of the
court and the documents were already submitted prior to the death and
could have been signed previously.
If the case is finished because of the death of a spouse, the surviving
spouse has all of the rights that existed as if there had been no divorce
including the rights of inheritance, rights to property held jointly and
the rights to be the surviving beneficiary of assets.
Recently a case was decided that even where a party had violated the "automatic
orders" which issue at the beginning of a divorce case, the court
lacked authority to enforce the automatic orders upon the "abatement"
of the case. The result was that where the deceased person had changed
beneficiaries of life insurance to remove the spouse, the court determined
that because the case was over they could not issue an order to correct
the beneficiary back to the spouse. I personally believe that if appealed
that decision may be reversed for many reasons.
If you find yourself in this unusual circumstance you should promptly obtain
a consultation with my office to determine if your rights need further