Estrangement refers to a breakdown in a relationship, such as a relationship with a spouse or family member, where there is no longer any communication, or communication has become hostile, and the individuals lead separate lives. Although estrangement can significantly impact individuals’ lives, it is not a legal term and, in many cases, might not have a legal effect.
Suppose a man is estranged from his son. They occasionally speak on the phone, but the conversation always ends in a fight. They no longer get together for holidays and do not feel close. However, the father does not have a will, and the son still has the legal right to inherit under his state’s intestacy law. For the father to disinherit his son, he must make a will.
Estate planning lawyers recommend explicitly disinheriting an estranged family member. In many cases, mere bad feelings and lack of contact likely are not sufficient to remove legal rights.
Imagine a couple gets married, but after a few months are not getting along. Rather than getting divorced, one spouse moves away and stops contact. The spouses are estranged.
Estranged couples are still legally married. Although the romantic relationship may have ended, they remain married under the law. Two people could be estranged for decades but nevertheless be officially married. They might live separately and have limited to no communication, but are not divorced or in the process of dissolving the marriage.
If you and your spouse are estranged, you need to get a divorce before you can remarry, divide your marital assets, or disinherit your spouse. Estranged spouses may retain their rights under the marriage, such as inheriting from their spouse, making health care decisions for their spouse as next-of-kin, and having rights to marital assets.
In some states, couples can become legally separated. Under legal separation, a couple may live separately, yet keep the right to be on each other’s health care plans, make medical decisions, inherit property, and reconcile the marriage. In states that do not allow legal separation, spouses may elect estrangement without committing to divorce, thinking they might repair the relationship in the future.
In abandonment cases, one partner leaves the other and might cease all contact, or contact might be sporadic. Abandoned spouses might not dissolve the marriage because they cannot afford an attorney or do not understand the law and think they are already divorced.
Even if you cannot find your marital partner, you can get a divorce. Most jurisdictions require that you or your attorney attempt to locate your estranged spouse to notify them of the divorce filing.
For example, your attorney might research your spouse’s possible addresses and send letters to these addresses informing them of your divorce. If your spouse does not respond, your divorce will be uncontested, and the court can grant your divorce, particularly if you and your spouse do not share assets, which is common in cases where spouses haven’t been together in years.
To learn more about the legal effects of estrangement, speak to an attorney.