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Separated but not divorced? What does that mean when you die?

Many Missouri couples decide that they can't live together happily. However, for any number of reasons, they may opt to remain legally married. In some cases, they just never get around to divorcing.

While you and your spouse may have been living separate lives for some time, you're still married in the eyes of the law. That means that if one of you dies, the other one is considered that person's spouse as much as if you'd remained happily married and living together.

If you already have an estate plan in place when you and your spouse separate, it's essential to review the provisions of that plan regarding things like your Health Care Proxy and your beneficiaries to make sure that you're still comfortable with any authority you've given your spouse and how your assets are to be bequeathed to make sure that you're still comfortable with your designations.

If you don't have an estate plan or even a will, it's important to note that under Missouri law, a surviving spouse is automatically entitled to a certain amount of the estate based on whether there are surviving children and how many. You have to take legal steps to disinherit a spouse before you die.

Even decisions involving funeral arrangements and deciding what to do with your body may automatically fall to your estranged spouse if you have no estate planning documents in place that say otherwise.

If you don't have an estate plan in place when you and your spouse make the decision to separate, this is a good time to start thinking about it. If you already have one, review it with your estate planning attorney to determine what changes, if any, you'd like to make. Your spouse should do the same.

It's also important to let other family members, like adult children and those whom you've named to administer your estate know what the status is regarding your estranged spouse's rights and responsibilities. This can help prevent some unpleasant and expensive legal battles after you're gone.

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