How is life insurance handled in a New York divorce?

Understanding the Division of Life Insurance in a New York Divorce

Life insurance policies are often overlooked in divorce proceedings, yet they can represent significant financial assets that require careful consideration. In New York, as in many states, life insurance is handled with particular attention to the type of policy, its purpose, and the beneficiary designations. Here’s what you need to know about how life insurance is dealt with in a New York divorce.

Types of Life Insurance Policies

There are two primary types of life insurance: term and permanent (whole life or universal). Term life insurance provides coverage for a specific period and pays out only if the insured person dies during that term. Permanent life insurance, by contrast, provides lifelong coverage and includes an investment component known as the cash value.

Marital Property vs. Separate Property

In New York, which is an equitable distribution state, marital property is divided fairly, though not necessarily equally, in a divorce. Marital property typically includes assets acquired during the marriage, while separate property refers to assets owned prior to marriage or acquired by gift or inheritance. The distinction between marital and separate property is crucial when determining how life insurance policies are split up.

Term Life Insurance

Term life insurance policies that were purchased during the marriage with marital funds are generally considered marital property. However, because these policies have no cash value and only provide a death benefit, they are often handled differently than other financial assets. If a term policy is meant to secure child support or spousal maintenance, a court may order the policy owner to maintain the beneficiary designations for the duration of the obligation.

Permanent Life Insurance

Permanent life insurance policies can be more complex due to their cash value component. The cash value that has accumulated during the marriage may be considered marital property and subject to division. Courts will consider contributions made with marital funds and any increase in value during the marriage when determining how to divide this asset.

Beneficiary Designations

It's essential for divorcing spouses to review and possibly update their beneficiary designations on life insurance policies following a divorce. In New York, automatic revocation laws may apply upon divorce, meaning that an ex-spouse could be automatically removed as a beneficiary unless the divorce decree explicitly maintains that designation.

Court Orders and Settlement Agreements

Courts have considerable discretion in handling life insurance in a divorce. They may order a spouse to maintain life insurance as security for alimony or child support. Settlement agreements can also stipulate terms regarding life insurance, such as maintaining certain levels of coverage and who should be named as beneficiaries.

Case Example: Sveen v. Melin

A historical reference that highlights the importance of beneficiary designations post-divorce is Sveen v. Melin, heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018. While not a New York case, it underscores how some states have laws automatically revoking an ex-spouse as a beneficiary upon divorce. The decision reinforced that such laws do not violate the Contracts Clause of the Constitution.


In summary, how life insurance is handled in a New York divorce depends on many factors including whether it's term or permanent insurance, its classification as marital or separate property, contributions made during the marriage, and the specific terms outlined in court orders or settlement agreements. It's crucial for individuals going through a divorce to seek legal guidance to ensure that these assets are properly addressed.