By: Michael Gunning
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Estate Planning for Unmarried Partners
Estate planning may be even more important than you think if you have a life partner but are not married. Without an appropriate plan, neither of you will be in a position to inherit from each other—and neither of you will have a say in the other’s end-of-life medical care.
If you die without a valid will, state laws will regulate where your exclusively owned property goes after your death. It won’t go to your unmarried partner; instead, if you don’t have any children, your closest relatives (which may include your parents) would inherit your property and assets. Similarly, only a spouse or someone you’ve appointed in a valid power of attorney will be able to make medical decisions for you if you become incapacitated. The good news is, you can create the legal documents you need with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.
If You’re Unprepared, Start by Creating Your Wills
We recommend that just about everyone creates a will, so you’ll be able to leave your possessions to the people you feel deserve them. If you don’t write a choice and do not have children, much of what you leave behind will likely go to your parents or siblings, and this varies based on each state’s laws. Every state in the US has intestate succession statutes, which list the relatives who inherit from someone who dies without a will.
The second significant purpose of creating a will is to name a guardian for your children. If either parent could not care for the children, a guardian would ensure they are adequately cared for. If no will exists naming a guardian, the court will step in to appoint one.
You can also leave assets to one another using a living trust, which serves the same purpose as a will but lets the surviving partner avoid the trouble and expense of probate. Unfortunately, many individuals don’t create a living trust until they are middle-aged or later, at which point it may be too late.
Consider Owning Assets Together
Owning large-ticket items, such as houses and cars, in joint tenancy with the right of survivorship is another way to guarantee that neither of you gets left out in the cold when the other passes away. That way, if one of you dies, the surviving owner automatically owns 100% of the property.
You will need to put both of your names on the asset’s official title document if you want to sell it. As an example, this might be your vehicle’s certificate of title or a house deed.
Designate Beneficiaries for Bank and Other Accounts
You and your spouse may not wish to share ownership of all of your assets for various reasons. Retirement accounts, for example, can’t be split between individuals. As a result, you’ll almost certainly need another estate planning strategy to ensure that property in your name only reaches your spouse after you pass away.
Your home, bank accounts, stocks and bonds, and other assets may not be included in your will. To pass on these assets, all you need to do is fill out a beneficiary designation form from your bank to name the individuals you wish to receive the funds.
It’s simple and free. You can change your mind at any time, so there’s no need to be concerned about how you’ll pay for it if you don’t have the money.
Create a Living Will and Durable Power of Attorney
These estate planning documents will be required to grant your partner power over financial and medical choices if it’s ever necessary for someone else to make decisions on your behalf.
To ensure that your assets are properly handled, get durable powers of attorney for finances (DPOA) and give each other authority over your money. This can be a significant advantage if one or both of you is struck by illness or injury. For example, you may need immediate access to your spouse’s bank account to pay your mortgage.
To give each other the power to make medical decisions for the other, create durable powers of attorney for health care if one of you is ever unable to do so on your own. Make a DPOA and a living will (medical directive), in which you describe your wishes for end-of-life health care. Your health care providers must then comply with your instructions, and writing them down allows your spouse to know how you want to be cared for as well.
Need additional resources to help with your estate planning strategy? Check out the DSHS website for helpful articles that elaborate on these topics in more detail.