The chances are pretty high that you’ve contemplated what happens after you pass on. Whether it was while attending the funeral of a friend or family member or during an intimate conversation with your partner, the thought of our own death is out there. Even though you’ve probably thought about it, you may not have actually taken action. Most people wait until significant life events, like marriage or the birth of a child, before they consider meeting with their Orange County estate planning attorney. If, however, you are unmarried, you might not realize the importance of estate planning. While we are all aware that tragedy can strike at any time, the stakes are much higher when you have a family, unmarried or not.
Estate Planning Tips for Unmarried Partners
With the number of unmarried couples living together rising each year, here are some things you should consider when thinking about estate planning for unmarried partners in Orange County, CA.
- Do unmarried couples need estate plans?
There are essentially two sides of your estate plan: what happens to your assets when you die and who takes care of you when you are no longer able to do so for yourself. Your wishes for these two points most likely will not change if you get married. In fact, an estate plan for a married couple is often very similar to that of an unmarried couple. The difference is that there are no legal defaults that help an unmarried couple without a proper estate plan.
Married couples are already afforded many benefits from our legal system: social security benefits, immigration status, joint taxes, hospital visits, inheritance, and more. In many states, assets are automatically passed on to a spouse when a will is missing. In other cases, the probate judge will grant the spouse ownership. An unmarried couple, however, may have a more significant battle to fight. Without the appropriate power of attorney, you could be denied access to visit your hospitalized partner. If you die, your partner may be denied access to your social security or other benefits.
Unmarried couples absolutely need an estate plan, maybe even more so than married couples. Since the law tends to favor marriage, you want to have an estate plan that gives your partner the legal ability to manage your assets while also being able to make decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated.
- Re-title Real Estate
Most estate plans contain a will; a legal document that distributes your assets according to your wishes. When dealing with real estate, you want to make sure that your partner contains control or might find him/herself out on the streets. Even if your partnership is well established, rigid laws may force your property to be reassigned in probate court.
One option unmarried couples can use is to transfer your property to a living trust or yourself or a joint trust with your partner. You would then name your partners as your estate successor trustee. After your passing, your partner can administer the estate without risk of probate court deciding otherwise. Another popular option is to name your partner as a joint tenant. Joint Tenancy is a type of ownership where multiple people own a property together. When one partner dies, the property passes to the surviving joint tenant.
Creating the appropriate trust can be challenging. This is an area where you do not want to take risks of getting something wrong. A mistake in setting up the trust could undo your wishes and create more problems than were intended to be solved. Your best bet is to work with Orange County estate planning lawyer to ensure everything is set up correctly.
- Appoint an Attorney-in-Fact.
One of the most important documents you can create is a durable power of attorney (POA). Naming your partners as a POA, you give him/her the ability to make decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated. These decisions could impact end-of-life care if you create an advance director for health care. It is crucial, of course, to have in-depth conversations with your partner about your wishes. For example, to what lengths can doctors use to keep you alive?
- Name a Pay-On-Death Beneficiary.
Most of your financial accounts allow you to name someone as a pay-on-death beneficiary. This makes it easy for funds to be transferred at the time of death. For example, if your partner passes away, you could take a copy of the death certificate to the bank and have funds transferred to your account.
While having a pay-on-death beneficiary isn’t perfect, it is better than nothing. There are cases where distributions aren’t immediate. It’s also important to review who is named as your beneficiary as this designation can take precedence over a will or trust.
- Write a Letter of Intent
A letter of intent helps your partner know everything needed to manage your estate properly. A letter of intent isn’t as much a legal document as instructions on your assets. A letter of intent often contains things like passwords, PINs, account numbers, debt accounts, and so on. You can also include instructions for your funeral. Providing this information makes it much easier for your partner to manage your estate.
It’s also a good idea to let your family know that you are including your partner in your estate plan. For example, if your siblings aren’t aware that your partner is included in your plan, there could be conflicts when managing your estate. You should mention something to this effect in your letter of intent as well as letting famiatly members know.
- Talk to Each Other
While discussing your or your partner’s death isn’t the most romantic date night, it is a necessary part of the relationship. Failing to include your significant other in this plan could cause issues down the line. If you have children together, it is even more critical that you agree on a plan. Not only should you determine what happens to your children if something happens to one of you, but what happens if something happens to you both. Make sure to decide who will take over guardianship of your children as this could cause significant conflict if a judge has to decide for you.
Creating a Proper Estate Plan
Regardless of whether you are planning to marry your partner or are choosing to remain unmarried, creating a proper estate plan should be a top priority. Failing to include your partner could have significant consequences. And while you may be tempted to use a cookie-cutter service online, only an experienced estate planning attorney in Orange County, CA can handle your unique situation properly and provide complete confidence and peace of mind.