Millions of people in the United States are in committed relationships but not married. While estate planning is important for everyone, it is particularly critical for unmarried partners.
The story below helps illustrate why.
John and Susan, who never married, lived together for 25 years. They shared all expenses, including house payments. Unfortunately, they never got around to estate planning. So, when John was diagnosed with a terminal disease, Susan had no say in his treatment and care or in managing his assets. Under the law, she was not a family member. And, because John had no Will, upon his death the state determined who John's "closest family members" were. And they were officially designated as John's beneficiaries. It didn't matter that Susan and John had often spoken about wanting each other to be his/her sole beneficiary. There were no documents in place to make their wishes enforceable. Susan got nothing.
Unmarried partners should each have a formal estate plan, that includes:
A Will and/or Trust specifying how the deceased's estate should be distributed among designated beneficiaries.
While a Will and a Trust may serve the same purpose, they are implemented differently. Wills are administered through a probate court, and are searchable public records, available to the scrutiny of family members and all other interested parties. Trusts are not public records and do not go through probate. Wills and Trusts each have pros and cons. For unmarried partners, working with an estate planning attorney to determine which are the best legal tools for their particular circumstances is highly recommended.
Updated Beneficiary designation forms:
Assets such as 401Ks, IRAs, and life insurance policies may be passed directly to intended beneficiaries in this straightforward manner. No probate is involved.
Power of Attorney and Medical Health Care Proxy:
A general durable power of attorney to allow the healthy partner to manage the other's legal and financial affairs in the event of incapacity. Additionally, each should have medical surrogate documents that enable the healthy partner to manage health care decisions on behalf of the partner who is ill and incapacitated.
Appointment of Funeral Planning Agent
An Appointment of Funeral Planning Agent, is a document specifying that your partner is in charge of your funeral arrangements. Under the law, living spouses are in charge of making funeral arrangements for their deceased spouses. However, in cases where partners are not married, they are not accorded that right. So, for unmarried partners, documentation designating your partner as the one in charge is essential.
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