In Georgia, a surviving spouse gains rights because a spouse is an heir-at-law, or a closest living relative, of someone who passes away. However, a surviving spouse does not automatically get everything. That is really an urban myth, even though there is a grain of truth in it. That grain of truth only arises if all the facts align just right.
In many cases, people want a surviving spouse to get everything, and that is why the default rules are built that way. For example, if a person dies without any Will and without children, then a new spouse can claim the estate because the surviving spouse is the only closest living relative and the deceased spouse has written nothing different.
If a new spouse is not mentioned in an existing Will which does not specifically state a future marriage is contemplated, and if that person has no children, then the probate code gives a surviving spouse the right to claim the decedent’s estate after debts and expenses are paid.
People can override the default rules by signing a valid Last Will and Testament. A Will spells out who takes charge of the estate and who receives property from the estate. The Will can be signed either before or after the marriage, and it should specify that a person is either already married or about to get married. By mentioning the marriage, a Will’s directions then control the estate and the default rules fall away.
Other ways to exercise more control over how assets flow are by designating beneficiaries of retirement accounts or insurance policies and by adding joint owners to various assets. Beneficiary designations transfer assets outside a Will, and take priority over the probate laws. Software programs and on-line services that help you draft a Will for a low cost often leave out language that describes these rules, and they don’t tell you about options that might exist outside the Will. They are not as effective as a professionally drafted document, so getting married is yet another reason to sit down with a good advisor and make changes to your Will.