Estate Planning Must-Haves for Unmarried Couples

4 Estate Planning Must-Haves for Unmarried Couples

Estate planning is often considered something you only need to worry about once you get married. But the reality is every adult, regardless of age, income level, or marital status, needs to have some fundamental planning strategies in place if you want to keep the people you love out of court and out of conflict.

In fact, estate planning can be even more critical for unmarried couples. Regardless if you’ve been together for decades and act just like a married couple, you likely aren’t viewed as one in the eyes of the law. And in the event one of you becomes incapacitated or when one of you dies, not having any planning in place can have disastrous consequences.

If you’re in a committed relationship and have yet to get—or even have no plans to get—married, the following estate planning documents are an absolute must:

Wills and trusts

If you’re unmarried and die without planning, the assets you leave behind will be distributed according to your state’s intestate laws to your family members: parents, siblings, and possibly even other, more distant relatives if you have no living parents or siblings. North Carolina’s laws would provide NO protection for your unmarried partner. Given this, if you want your partner to receive any of your assets upon your death, you need to – at the very least – create a will.

A will details how you want your assets distributed after you die, and you can name your unmarried partner, or even a friend, to inherit some or all of your assets. However, certain assets like life insurance, pensions, and 401(k)s, are not transferred through a will. Instead, those assets will go to the person named in the beneficiary designation, so be sure to name your partner as beneficiary if you’d like him or her to inherit those assets.

However, there could be an even better way.

Although wills and beneficiary designations offer one way for your unmarried partner to inherit your assets, they’re not always the best option. First and foremost, they do not operate in the event of your incapacity, which could occur before your death. In that case, your partner may not have access to needed assets to pay bills, or he or she could potentially even be kicked out of your home by a family member appointed as your guardian during your incapacity.

Moreover, a will requires probate, a court process that can take quite some time to navigate. And finally, assets passed by beneficiary designation go outright to your partner, with no protection from creditors or lawsuits. To protect those assets for your partner, you’ll need a different planning strategy.

Trusts may be the best option

A far better option would be to place the assets you want your partner to inherit in a living trust. First off, trusts can be used to transfer assets in the event of your incapacity, not just upon your death. Trusts also do not have to go through probate, saving your partner precious time and money.

What’s more, leaving your assets in a continued trust that your partner could control would ensure the assets are protected from creditors, future relationships, and/or unexpected lawsuits.

Consult with us for help deciding which option – a will or trust – is best suited for passing on your assets.

Durable power of attorney

When it comes to estate planning, most people focus only on what happens when they die. However, it’s just as important – if not even more so – to plan for your potential incapacity due to an accident or illness.

If you become incapacitated and haven’t legally named someone to handle your finances while you’re unable to do so, the court will pick someone for you. And this person could be a family member, who doesn’t care for or want to support your partner, or it could be a professional guardian who will charge hefty fees, possibly draining your estate.

Since it’s unlikely that your unmarried partner will be the court’s first choice, What can you do?  If you want your partner (or even a friend)  to manage your finances in the event you become incapacitated, you would grant your partner (or friend) a durable power of attorney.

Durable power of attorney is an estate planning tool that will give your partner immediate authority to manage your financial matters in the event of your incapacity. He or she will have a broad range of powers to handle things like paying your bills and taxes, running your business, collecting government benefits, selling your home, as well as managing your banking and investment accounts.

Granting a durable power of attorney to your partner is especially important if you live together, because without it, the person who is named by the court could legally force your partner out with little to no notice, leaving your partner homeless.

Most people tend to view estate planning as something only married couples need to worry about. However, estate planning can be even more critical for those in committed relationships who are unmarried.

Because your relationship with one another is frequently not legally recognized, if one of you becomes incapacitated or when one of you dies, not having any planning can have disastrous consequences. Your age, income level, and marital status makes no difference – every adult needs to have some fundamental planning strategies in place if you want to keep the people you love out of court and out of conflict.

So far, we discussed wills, trusts, and durable power of attorney. Next, we’ll look at two more must-have estate planning tools, both of which are designed to protect your choices about the type of medical treatment you’d want if tragedy should strike.

Medical power of attorney

In addition to naming someone to manage your finances in the event of your incapacity, you also need to name someone who can make health-care decisions for you. If you want your partner to have any say in how your health care is handled during your incapacity, you should grant your partner medical power of attorney.

This gives your partner the ability to make health-care decisions for you if you’re incapacitated and unable to do so yourself. This is particularly important if you’re unmarried, seeing that your family could leave your partner totally out of the medical decision-making process, and even deny your him or her the right to visit you in the hospital.

Don’t forget to provide your partner with HIPAA authorization within the medical power of attorney, so he or she will have access to your medical records to make educated decisions about your care.

Living will

While medical power of attorney names who can make health-care decisions in the event of your incapacity, a living will explains how your care should be handled, particularly at the end of life. If you want your partner to have control over how your end-of-life care is managed, you should name them as your agent in a living will.

A living will explains how you’d like important medical decisions made, including if and when you want life support removed, whether you would want hydration and nutrition, and even what kind of food you want and who can visit you.

Without a valid living will, doctors will most likely rely entirely on the decisions of your family or the named medical power of attorney holder when determining what course of treatment to pursue. Without a living will, those choices may not be the choices you—or your partner—would want.

We can help

If you’re involved in a committed relationship – married or not – or you just want to make sure that the people you choose are making your most important life-and-death decisions, consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer® to put these essential estate planning tools in place.

With our help, we can support you in identifying the best planning strategies for your unique needs and situation. Contact us today to get started with a Family Wealth Planning Session.

Call 919-883-2800

And, if you have friends who are unmarried, ask them to call us too!

 

They know what I want…

A recent article from Northwestern Mutual says otherwise.

An astonishing 69% of people have not planned and NEVER ASKED the people they expect to provide care for them … those family members who will provide care for loved ones don’t know what is coming!

If they do not know what you want, or that you want THEM to be a part of the decisions, things WILL NOT GO AS YOU HOPE!

Don’t keep your wishes a secret!

Have the conversation with your loved ones about how you want to be treated, and how you want to be cared for as you age.  “Hoping” is not a plan.  “Thinking” about doing something is not a plan.

Take steps today to PLAN.  What should you set up first?

Money Matters

You should have Financial Powers of Attorney planned, completed, and recorded with your county (yes, I know, recording isn’t required anymore … do it anyway).  These powers allow someone to help make decisions for you when you cannot.  For example, paying your bills, making sure your living accommodations are taken care of, and keeping current with taxes.

Does it matter?

You bet!  I had a client a couple of years ago who stopped her auto-withdrawal from the bank for her mortgage.  She suffered from dementia and didn’t trust the bank and thought they were stealing from her.

Guess what?   You probably know … her house was foreclosed on, and she died alone in a nursing home.

What about Medical decisions?

Same thing … you need a Medical Power of Attorney to be sure that someone can make medical decisions when you cannot.  For example, if you have a stroke and need care, what are your planned wishes for care?  No one will know if you can’t speak for yourself.  Proper Medical Documents allow us to help you put your thoughts into writing, so you can speak through your agent.

Don’t delay!  Life can change in an instant!

Do you drive a car?  Then, you are at risk of an accident every minute!
Do you walk around your house or apartment?  Then, you can trip and fall!

I have clients for whom both have happened, with tragic results.

Come see us!

Make the plans.  Powers of Attorney, and Wills and/or trusts.  Then, have the conversation with your family!

We can help with all your needs, including protecting your children!!

Call today!  919-883-2800

Or, schedule a session with us.

Don’t wait!

No, I’m not kidding, do not wait another minute!  Call 919-883-2800 right now.

Elder Abuse is a national problem

Why does mom have a black eye?  Is it elder abuse?  I work with many families in my practice.  A lot of them have a loved one with some sort of dementia. From time to time, I see behaviors that look a lot like elder abuse. I bet you do too.

Active Elder Abuse

Active elder abuse such as striking the elder (physical), or yelling at them (psychological), or stealing their debit card (financial) are the obvious events.  These should be reported and families should be on the lookout for this type of abuse.  Observe whenever the elder is visited by any family member.  Ask questions and don’t let “oh, I am fine, dear” be the only answer when you suspect some problem.  Dig deeper … your elder may need an advocate.

When the elder is ignored, is that elder abuse?  It may be if it leads to bed sores, falls that injure the elder, or worse.  What about simply their making bad decisions on their own because there is no one watching over them?  It is hard for a family to kow.  Is letting dad live on his own  “respectful distance” and allowing him the freedom to thrive?  When does it become a situation that is actively dangerous?  And, it is hard to know when to change gears from passive observation to an active role in protecting or managing the elder.

Competence is the real issue … does making a “bad” decision mean he is incompetent?  Does purchasing a minor repair for an outrageous sum of money rise to the level of incompetence of the elder or a criminal act by the seller?  Probably not.  Morally reprehensible maybe, but abuse?   That is a hard line to draw.

Resources

Here is a link to a resource from “Aging In Place”, a national organization that supports the needs of families and elders in the aging process.  It reminds us of the statistics and what you can do about elder abuse.  Most important is not to ignore it… too often that leads to worse things for the elder and their families. Never wait if you spot active elder abuse.

Here is another blog posting you can reference when you visit your elder .. not only during the holidays but every time you visit.  And here is a guide for visits to communities or their home.

Contact my office if you have questions about elder planning, legal documents, Wills and Trusts, or how to find resources to help you and your loved ones.  We are happy to help!

Ratings and Reviews

Top Attorney​, 2015-2016​

Three Best Rated in Durham for Estate Planning