If you are among the millions of Americans in a committed long-term relationship who have decided to put off—or forego altogether—marriage, estate planning takes on a heightened importance for you. The law continues to confer certain benefits and rights on the legally married that simply don’t exist outside the bounds of marriage. Fortunately, careful estate planning can accomplish what the law does not. A Riverside estate planning attorney at Sandoval Legacy Group explains why estate planning takes on a heightened importance for unmarried couples.
The laws do not keep pace with societal norms
Not all that long ago, it was almost unheard of for two unmarried people of the opposite sex to live together. In fact, figures released by the U.S. Census tell us that in 1968 only 0.1 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 0.2 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds lived with an unmarried partner. Fast forward 50 years, and now 10 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 15 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds live with an unmarried partner. The law often does not keep pace with societal norms, which is why it is important to have comprehensive estate plan if you are in this type of relationship.
How Can Estate Planning Help Unmarried Couples?
Having a comprehensive estate plan in place protects you and your partner in several important ways.
Making sure your partner inherits from your estate – if you were to die without at least a basic Last Will and Testament in place, you would leave behind an intestate estate. When that happens, the state intestate succession laws determine what happens to your estate assets. Although state intestate succession laws can vary somewhat, they all distribute an estate to a spouse and/or close relatives only. Because you are not legally married, your partner would receive nothing from your estate – no matter how long you have been together. He/she would not even be entitled to sentimental personal property that you would undoubtedly want him/her to have. Executing a Will, however, allows you to gift any – or all – of your assets to your partner.
Giving your partner authority over you and your assets – if you were to become incapacitated tomorrow, someone would have to take over control of your assets and make certain decisions for you. You might want that person to be your partner; however, the law would not favor appointing him/her should it become necessary for a judge to decide. Creating a power of attorney appointing your partner as agent in the event of your incapacity allows your partner to handle your finances and speak with government agencies or other organizations, such as your credit card company or the HR department at work. Creating a revocable living trust that appoints you as the Trustee and your partner as the successor Trustee in the event of your incapacity or death can also help resolve this dilemma. Major assets are transferred into the trust and if you become incapacitated, your partner takes over as the Trustee, giving him/her control over those assets without the need to seek judicial approval. There may also come a time when you are unable to make your own medical decisions. Someone might even have to make life-sustaining, or life-ending, medical decisions for you. If you want your partner to make those decisions, you need to execute the appropriate advance directive because if a judge is forced to decide who will be your health care agent your partner will not likely be appointed.
Putting your partner in charge to honor your wishes – like many people, you may have very strong feelings about how your body is handled following your death and about your own funeral and burial. You, however, won’t be around to ensure that your own wishes are honored. Someone else will decide what happens. Once again, if there is a dispute as to who is in charge, a court will likely appoint a close family member instead of your partner because you were not legally married. Incorporating a funeral and burial component into your estate plan can resolve this potential disaster by allowing you to put your partner in charge.
You may also have strong feelings on how and to whom you want your assets distributed at death. A Will or Trust allows you to designate the person you want to make sure your wishes are carried out. Without a Will or Trust, a probate court judge would designate the person to carry out your wishes. Under California intestacy law, that person would not be your partner.
Contact a Riverside Estate Planning Attorney
If you have additional questions or concerns about how to protect yourself and your partner through estate planning, contact an experienced Riverside estate planning attorney at Sandoval Legacy Group by calling (951) 888-1460 to schedule an appointment.