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Don't forget your estate plan when you and your spouse separate

The recent suicides of celebrity chef/travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade stunned the world, in part because they both seemed to have it all. They had something in common besides obviously not being as happy as they outwardly appeared to be. Both were separated from their spouses when they took their lives.

Many couples, for various reasons, decide to go their separate ways, but don't divorce for a long time or perhaps ever. While Spade hadn't spoken publicly about the state of her marriage, Bourdain had. He explained that he and his wife were focused on co-parenting their child. He said, "As a family, I think we've done a really good job and we're doing a really good job and would like to keep it that way."

These celebrity deaths raise the issue of the rights of estranged spouses when someone dies. If people are still legally married when they die, their spouses generally have all the inheritance rights of any spouse and control over the body and the estate -- no matter how long they've been estranged and what the relationship is.

We know a bit more about the handling of Bourdain's estate than Spade's. Shortly after his death, his mother told the media that she didn't know about the funeral plans because his wife was handling those. She said, "Although they are separated, she'll be in charge of whatever happens."

If you and your spouse separate amicably, you may be comfortable leaving him or her in charge of your health care directive, will, trusts and other legal documents that are part of your estate. You may be fine with your husband or wife handling your funeral arrangements. However, if you aren't (and/or your spouse isn't comfortable with you continuing to have these authorities), you'll need to talk with your California estate planning attorney about making changes to your estate plan.

Even if you don't want to make any changes, at least for the foreseeable future, it's wise to notify your attorney of your separation so that he or she can advise you of any estate matters you may want to consider. It's also wise to keep family members and others whom you've given authority over your estate informed of your decisions. This can prevent bickering and potential legal battles after you're gone.

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