It’s not surprising that, after a bitter divorce, one of the former spouses would want to exclude the other from a will or estate. But wanting something doesn’t make it so – especially when it comes to a life insurance policy.

That principle was reaffirmed by the California Court of Appeal in a recent case in San Mateo County. (Estate of Post (2018) 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 580.)

Jerome and Angela Post were married for 32 years. In 1993 they purchased a joint life insurance policy that named Angela as the beneficiary if Norman died first. If she was no longer alive, Jerome’s sons from a prior relationship would receive the insurance proceeds.

Jerome executed a will in 2013. A year later, the couple was granted a divorce.

It must not have been an amicable separation, because on May 13, 2016, Jerome met with his attorney and executed a handwritten codicil to his will. It said he did not want Angela “inheriting anything from [him] under any circumstances by beneficiary designation or otherwise.” The codicil did not specifically mention the insurance policy.

Jerome died three days later. His sons told the insurance company they were disputing Angela’s right to the proceeds, and then petitioned the Probate Court to issue an order designating them, not Angela, as the rightful beneficiaries of the policy.

Jerome’s attorney testified that, when she met with him three days before his death, he said he wanted to be sure that Angela received nothing from him after his death “either by will, devise, beneficiary designation, or otherwise.”

The attorney said she believed Jerome intended to “remove his ex-wife as a beneficiary,” but he had died before she could return to do the paperwork.

The probate court issued an order naming the sons as “proper and rightful beneficiaries” of the insurance policy. Angela appealed the ruling.

The appellate court reversed the ruling, saying that the probate court simply did not have the power to change the terms of the insurance policy. The probate court’s task was to decide on matters related to Jerome’s estate, it said, and the insurance policy was not part of that estate.

A probate court “has no other powers than those given by statute,” the appellate court noted, “and can only determine those questions or matters arising in the estate which it is authorized to do.”

Citing earlier cases, it said that “It is well settled that a beneficiary under an insurance policy takes by virtue of the contract of insurance rather than by the law of succession; that the proceeds do not become a part of the estate of the insured.”

For that reason, it said, the probate court had no jurisdiction over Jerome’s policy and thus lacked the authority to designate the sons, rather than Angela, as the beneficiaries.

The case is a good reminder to make sure to keep the beneficiary designations for your insurance, bank and investment accounts up to date, as well as your estate plans, rather than hoping a probate court will be able to figure out what you wanted and have the power to make that happen.

By Lynda I. Chung