Transfer on Death Provision Naming Divorced Spouse As Beneficiary

What happens when you forget to remove your ex-spouse from a transfer of death designation? A recent Missouri case addresses that issue.

Facts of Case

Matthew McWilliams owned a bass boat, motor, and two trailers. All were titled solely in his name.  He designated his wife, Lisa, as transfer-on-death (TOD). Matthew and Lisa subsequently divorced, but he did not re-title the boat, motor, and trailers or change the beneficiary designations. After Matthew died without a will or trust, Lisa claimed the titled assets based on the TOD provisions. The personal representative of Matthew’s estates disagreed and relied upon § 461.051.1 of the Missouri Statutes, which provides: 

If, after an owner makes a beneficiary designation, the owner’s marriage is dissolved or annulled, any provision of the beneficiary designation in favor of the owner’s former spouse … is revoked on the date the marriage is dissolved or annulled…. The beneficiary designation shall be given effect as if the former spouse … had disclaimed the revoked provision. 

The probate court hearing the case agreed with the estate. The assets were property of the estate and not Lisa’s.

The Ruling on Appeal

On appeal, the Missouri Southern District Court of Appeals made quick work of Lisa’s arguments that she was entitled to the assets. First, the court noted that the above statute applied and was valid. Lisa asserted that certain statutes governing the titling of motor vehicles and related assets took precedence and precluded a change in the TOD designation. Again, the Court held that, to the extent the two statutes conflicted, the statue cited above controlled and Lisa’s designation as the TOD beneficiary was null and void.


The Missouri legislature enacted this statute to address what is likely a common oversight after divorce. Many people forget to change the TOD designation after a divorce. The statue and this court’s ruling ensure that an ex-spouse does not benefit from such an oversight.

Having said that, the best practice would be to retitle or change TOD designations after a divorce to ensure the assets pass to the correct person. This is especially true if, for some reason, a spouse does want an ex-spouse to receive assets under a TOD. In others words, don’t assume a TOD designation remains valid after a divorce.

The full opinion can be found here.