The recent death of Gary Coleman brings to light an important issue that is often overlooked: in some states separation does not automatically revoke health care directives, living wills, or health care powers of attorney. It seems that Gary and his ex divorced in August 2008, but because he never updated his estate plan, his ex was still named as his agent to make medical decisions and during Gary’s dying hours, his ex was at the hospital and apparently implied that she and Gary were still married.

Fortunately, the North Carolina legislature added a law to the books a few years ago that an ex-spouse will automatically be revoked as a health care agent when a court issues a decree of divorce or separation. Of course, if you have separated but a formal decree has yet to be entered, your ex could still be called upon to make medical decisions. Likewise, if you are an unmarried couple, you’ll need to be proactive about updating your plan. Or, if you divorce but still remain friends with your ex and want him or her to still make your medical decisions, you’ll need to update your plan to affirmatively declare your intent.

Finally, even if there is a formal decree of divorce or separation, it’s still a good idea to update your plan so there are no ambiguities. As seen in Gary Coleman’s case, in his dying hours, the hospital did not know that Gary and his ex were divorced and because she was still listed on the outdated document; the doctors were relying on his ex’s authority. We’ll never know whether or not this is what Gary Coleman truly would have wanted, but it does serve as a reminder of how important it is to regularly review and update your estate plan.

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