Notes From a Single Mom on Life And Death: If the Ex Died, Could You Still Support Your Children?

Now that 2012 is behind us, it’s time to start planning for a smart and profitable year ahead. If you’re a single parent, like me, financial concerns are always front and center. Let me pose a question you may have already pondered, perhaps even fantasized about on occasion: What would you do if your ex-spouse suddenly died?

Your first concern, of course, would be about the emotional impact it would have on your kids. But if you’re the parent receiving child support, your next thought surely would be a financial one. If child support payments suddenly stop—and they will if the paying ex-spouse dies—many single parents would be in the poorhouse.

“If you’re dependent on that support as a source of income, the only way to take care of that risk is through life insurance,” advises Violet P. Woodhouse, a family law attorney and author of Divorce & Money: How To Make The Best Financial Decisions During Divorce.

Lynn Armitage

What most single parents think is an unlikely scenario—“Oh, that could never happen to me!”—really did happen to my friend recently. One fateful day, her seemingly healthy, 46-year-old ex-husband, dropped dead at work from a heart attack. Fortunately, he had a life insurance policy naming her as the beneficiary that he had just paid on the day before his untimely demise. Even after their divorce, they remained friendly, so life insurance was an easy detail to work out. 

But my ex-husband wouldn’t be as cooperative. The last thing he wants is for me to profit from his death. He thinks he already gives enough blood every month through child support.

“This isn’t about enriching anybody. It’s about ensuring that the children’s needs are going to be met,” Woodhouse points out.

Now that my ex is remarried, I’m certain he’s named his new wife as his beneficiary. But what about our daughters? Can I be sure the new wife will continue the flow of support should my children’s father suddenly die? Heck, no—which is why I’ve taken out a life insurance policy on him with a little help from Family Court. (The courts view this as a reasonable request, says Woodhouse.) I pay the small monthly premium and have named myself as the beneficiary. I’m now in complete control of my children’s future, and it feels good. Whatever fate may come, at least my daughters will be supported until they’re 18 years old.

Woodhouse agrees it’s the best way to go. “The custodial parent should own the policy because you have total control over the amount of insurance, who the beneficiary is and whether premiums are paid.” On the flip side, if the parent paying child support owns the policy, there’s always that risk he won’t pay the monthly premium and the insurance will be cancelled without your knowledge. You don’t want any surprises should that fateful day ever come.

So ask your ex-spouse if he or she will cooperate with you in taking out a life insurance policy. If not, consider consulting a lawyer to see if it’s wise to go to court. If you can’t afford a lawyer, Woodhouse recommends you see the family facilitator at the justice center. It’s free.

Or contact the Legal Aid office in your city, as most states have one. Indian Law Clinics at some law schools are another potential resource. The clinics provide law students with experience in Native American law, and at the same time provide legal services to tribes and low-income Native clients.

Lynn Armitage is a freelance writer and enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. She also writes the “Spirit of Enterprise” column for ICTMN.