If a married couple separates and one spouse files for divorce, what happens if either spouse passes away before the divorce is finalized? Does the surviving spouse have a claim to the deceased spouse's estate, if no will has been left by the deceased?

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania says that, in some circumstances, the answer is no. In Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, the trial court found that a husband's extramarital affairs, after his wife filed for divorce, constituted willful and malicious desertion, and therefore he had no claim to his deceased wife's estate.

The decision came in the case of Donald and Kathleen Talerico. According to court records, they separated in 2010, and soon thereafter, Kathleen filed for divorce. Donald continued to financially support Kathleen, and even though they both engaged in extramarital affairs, they continued to maintain a friendship.

When Kathleen passed away in 2014, Kathleen's sister filed a notice of claim against her sister's estate. Donald filed a petition to dismiss Kathleen's sister's claim, asserting that because divorce grounds had not yet been established at the date of Kathleen's death, the parties still were married for purposes of her estate's division. Kathleen's sister claimed that Donald's extramarital affairs, even though they came after the divorce filing, constituted a forfeiture of his claim to Kathleen's estate.

The superior court agreed with Kathleen's sister, basing their decision on §2106 of the Pennsylvania Probate Code which states that a spouse who has willfully and maliciously deserted the other spouse shall have no right or interest in the deceased spouse's estate.

The court stated that it was of no consequence that Kathleen also had engaged in extramarital affairs after the divorce filing. Superior Court Justice Jack Panella found that a spouse's death, after the filing of the divorce complaint, did not invalidate the couple's separation and pending divorce proceeding.

If, however, Kathleen had had a will that clearly stated that Donald would inherit a portion of her estate, a divorce filing would not have invalidated Kathleen's clear intention to leave her estate to Donald.

At Williams Family Law, P.C., we can help you understand how a divorce filing will affect your life. Call 215-340-2207 to schedule a consultation with our Bucks County and Montgomery County divorce attorneys today.