In today’s day and age, marriage is not the only way for couples to stay under one roof. In fact, data from the U.S. Census Bureau says that the number of adults who live cohabit together is 29% more than what it used to be in 2007 – and over a half of this percentage is aged 35 and younger.
Just like marriage, cohabitation has a profound effect on estate planning – albeit one that is markedly different from that of married couples. Given that there is no set legal system in place for those who cohabit (as opposed to marriage), it is important to understand how estate plan would work in such situations, and how couples who cohabit can take advantage of benefits afforded by married couples such as social security, right to property, inheritance and decision making privilege, among others.
Here are key elements that unmarried couples must consider when making their estate plan:
Avoid probate by re-titling your real estate:
In general, having a sound estate plan helps you make sure that your assets will remain safe, avoid probate, and go to those you wish to with no hassles. This applies even more so in case you are cohabiting – in the absence of proper legal documents, your assets would fall under intestacy laws, and your near and dear would all have to go through the long-drawn system of probate.
While there is always a chance for your property to ultimately by subjected to probate, there are things you can do to avoid the undesirable situation as much as possible. You can start by transferring your property to a joint trust with your partner. That way, if you die or become incapacitated before them, your partner would be able to administer the estate in the capacity of a successor trustee.
Secondly, you can enter into joint tenancy along with your partner. This is a special kind of ownership wherein two or more people can own a property collectively – even if they are not related by blood or marriage. If one of the tenant dies, their interest immediately passes on to the surviving tenant(s).
Name your partner as your Attorney-in-Fact:
The Power of Attorney is the most essential and critical of all estate planning tools that you must have. This is one document that affects you throughout your lifetime, as opposed to others, which affect others and only after you are dead. By using a Power of Attorney to appoint your partner as an ‘Attorney-in-Fact, you can make sure that they have the power to act on your behalf in legal, medical and financial matters – when you are unable to make decisions for yourself. Additionally, you should add your partner and give them the power to make end-of-life decisions by appointing them as your proxy via an Advance Directive for Health Care document.
Appoint your partner as your “pay-on-death” beneficiary:
For those who are technically not married, financial and legal instruments (such as will and estate plans, bank accounts, insurance policies, and retirement plans) give you the option to at least one individual – in this case, your partner as a “pay-on-death” beneficiary. This allows your partner to receive your assets after your death automatically – even if you are not married. So for instance, if your partner is listed as the pay-on-death beneficiary of your bank account, all he or she has to do is take a copy of your death certificate, along with a proof of their identity. The bank will then re-title the account to their name or transfer the funds to their account.
Include your digital assets in your estate plan:
The touch of technology has altered the whole world we live in – and estate planning is no exception. With the rise of technology has risen the amount of online “assets,” namely social media accounts, e-mail accounts, websites, and even finance in the shape of cryptocurrencies. It is, therefore, essential for you to include said digital properties your estate plan and make sure that your representatives have the access to take actions to reassign and/or delete your online accounts after you pass away.
Write detailed instructions for your partner:
A lot needs to be done when someone passes away – from things as sensitive as distribution of assets to those as seemingly mundane and simple and paying pending bills and turning off subscriptions. Writing a letter of instruction for your partner to tell them (or, alternatively, any other representatives) all the things they should know regarding managing your estate. This includes handling bills, canceling services and/or subscriptions, handling personal effects and making sure that certain members of the family and friends are notified.
Having such instructions in hand will make executing them a much simpler task for your partner and/or other representatives to manage all of your affairs after your passing.
One of the best and most essential things a family with wealth can do to protect and grow their wealth is to create a solid financial estate plan. According to a 2014 report by Vanguard, seeking an advisor to build a financial estate plan is one of the top three services sought by affluent families (besides implementation of tax-advantaged strategies and planning for long-term care).
In such situations, a good plan makes all the difference – not only will it cover the goals the family wishes to attain, it will also keep searching for areas to improve in, and when necessary adapt to changes and include new situations.
Here are some estate-planning tips that you can use to protect and grow the wealth that belongs to you and your family:
Minimize your taxes:
While planners are the best at doing what they do (provided you’ve done your research and hired a good one), they are usually not the most knowledgeable when it comes to tax matters. It is, therefore best that you consult a tax lawyer or accountant who can help you minimize your taxes as much as possible before you begin the process of building your estate plan. Tax lawyers work with estate planners and advisors to review areas where benefits can be maximized through conducting an early division of assets.
Add a life insurance plan:
Making the addition of a life insurance plan into the financial one has more than a few benefits. For starters, it works as a great way to manage tax and risk-related expenses within corporations. Secondly, it serves as a handy tool for families that have high spending rates but wish to leave a certain estate value behind with as few tax litigations as possible.
Take your family structure into account:
Usually, families that are more affluent and wealthy than others tend to have a more detailed and complicated asset structure. This is at least partially because of the fact that many of said assets get implemented in an ad hoc manner over a large period of time, with the hiring of multiple tax lawyers and/or accountants.
Generally, creating a uniform family governance plan will help formalize the structure into a clean, solid shape. This would help make the financial structure more efficient and accountable and reduce costs tremendously. The factors to be taken into account here should be the formal setting out of family members’ roles and responsibilities, and a thorough calculation of the required outside expertise (such as investment, legal, and accounting).
Make your will early – and review your will regularly:
Quite surprisingly, it is a known fact that people tend to not make wills unless they cross a certain age. To most people who are young, making a will and an estate plan is a waste of time, money and personal involvement.
In reality, however, the only person who can validate the truth of the matter as an estate planner. With solid estate background and experience (from practical experience to memberships of prestigious organizations such as of The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP), planners will be able to map out a procedure and summarize the areas that needs the attention of a lawyer. Undertaking this process when you are young – and reviewing it regularly will help you stay organized, fulfill the current financial needs of you and your family, reduce otherwise unnecessary legal bills, and make sure that the a well-formulated will exists, capable of handling any and all situations.
Allocate your investments:
Last but not the least, you must integrate all of the above into designing and building your investment portfolio, in accordance to the Investment Policy Statement. Doing this can require some initial heavy lifting, but it will be worth it when you are relieved that a solid estate plan is in action.
To allocate your investments fairly, make sure than the investment assets are well-diversified, yet dynamic enough to be easily changes with changes in the family structure.
In today’s day and age, blended families are on the rise. While they are generally good news for both the parties involved (as well as their children, if there are any), they come with some unique changes and challenges, especially on the legal and financial front. In the case of estate planning, for instance, things can get tight in case the wishes of spouses clash with each other – say, a well-to-do man with 2 children married a relatively wealthy woman with 1 child, the man may want the joint estate to be split equally between the 3 children, whereas the woman may want to each parent to address their child’s inheritance on their own. While the couple should have discussed these matters before marriage, they rarely tend to think what they must do with their wealth once they pass away.
Not only are such kinds of frictions bad, they can have people holding grudges for years, if not decades. The best way to avoid this is to make a solid estate plan for blended families that will honor everyone’s wishes and help divide property equally after the death of the parents.
Here are some tips on how you can successfully work on estate planning for blended families:
Tip #1: Make a disposition of remains – A disposition of remains is a legal document that appoints one individual to make crucial decisions, such as burial. This can be very useful when there is a conflict of opinion between the deceased parent’s children from their first marriage and the surviving partner. In case the deceased has not signed said document before his/her death, the surviving spouse will have complete control over all decisions, and the children will have absolutely no say in any matter whatsoever.
Tip #2: Make sure to spell out the terms of property distribution after your death – Spelling out the terms of how property is supposed to be distributed after your death will help clear the air on how financial matters would be handled, and would help make an atmosphere that is fair for both your surviving spouse (and their children), as well as your children from your previous marriage. Failing to do so will cause your spouse to receive all joint assets, along with total and complete rights to do whatever he or she would like to do with said assets. Such situation can turn out to be slippery, as the surviving spouse may have a greater desire to favor his or her own children.
Tip #3: Use irrevocable trusts – If you are both sincere about sharing your resources equally among your children regardless of their origin, irrevocable trusts are a great way to legally cement your wished and justifications. To do this successfully, you can do either of the following:
- Buy life insurance and name the biological children of the first spouse passing away as the beneficiaries.
- Have the assets entered in a trust upon the death of the first spouse and appoint an independent and impartial trustee who will control how said assets will be distributed. This will prevent the surviving spouse from emptying the trust on their own will.
- Upon their death of the first spouse, give the assets to their biological children, to the stepparent’s detriment.
Tip #4: Discuss the extent of information that children should have upon their biological parent’s death – With matters as sensitive as estate planning, it is important for biological children to not feel that they are being kept out of the loop in any way. For instance, if the biological parent has assets (which the biological children did not know about), and if said assets were passed on to the stepparent, this would make the biological children feel that they were keep in the dark the whole time, which in turn would create a big rift in the fabric of the family.
While most families are open about all kinds of topics, they are reluctant to talk about some subjects, such as being death and money. For all adults – parents and children, death is a sensitive matter and is not discussed until it is visibly unavoidable. Another issue of concern is privacy around financial matters.
That being said, families must strive to overcome this discomfort and converse about possible deaths and transfer of assets. Here are some tips on how families can get started without any awkwardness creeping in the way.
When it comes to estate planning, a sensitive and transparent conversation between family members can go a long way. For instance, the parent may wish to have a specific survivor to manage their assets, but in reality, has no idea whether the person would be comfortable doing so. Having a heart-to-heart conversation in this regard will help the parents’ perspective.
Furthermore, survivors also may have a desire to know what plans you have for your assets and estate and will appreciate knowing them from parents directly – while they are still living. Additionally, the scope of misunderstanding and conflict will reduce if there are multiple beneficiaries.
When estate plans have not been adequately drafted and/or communicated, it may also lead to a possibly dramatic reduction in the amount that the beneficiaries.
Last but not the least, survivors may take drastic actions based on the deceased’s wishes, if the latter is not communicated to them in time. Not only does this cause a waste of vital money, it is also an inconvenience in terms of time and energy on the part of the survivor – not to mention missed growth opportunities and outdated portfolio.
The benefits of dialogue:
Having an open dialogue on estate planning brings several benefits to both the adult parents and the adult children. These include the following (among many others):
– Conversations can prove to be very effective if the beneficiaries extend beyond the main household
– Adult children can know what the intention of parents are about their estate, and will know what to do should they pass away or become incapacitated
– In case the children are minors, the appointed interim guardians will have a clear picture of the parents’ plan (as will the children themselves)
– Parents will have the piece of knowing that their descendants (which may sometimes span their nieces, nephews, grandchildren or any extended family members) know about their plans, and any of them who will face responsibility of managing the same will be comfortable doing so.
– The family as a whole will gain a sense of empowerment, armed with sound knowledge and good control over their collective future.
Starting the conversation:
While this conversation is important, it is admittedly difficult to begin. While there is no one specific way or “format” to starting the discussion, one parents try any one of the following ways:
– Start the conversation during a peaceful time in life. It is best to not wait to speak till a crisis occurs, or worse, when the parents are deceased or incapacitated
– Let your survivors know that you mean well, and are sincere about your intentions, and that they understand your intentions fully.
– Encourage an open conversion – let your survivors speak-up if they feel that something is incorrect. Not only will this will make them comfortable, it will help parents update their plans, if needed.
Several people think that estate planning is an activity that is required only by the wealthy. This could not be farther from the truth. Everybody requires a solid estate plan, no matter what their income or net worth is. Having an estate reduces any scope of confusion, cuts all unnecessary costs, and lifts off any financial or estate-related stress from survivors.
According to a recent piece on Yahoo! Finance, which featured WealthCounsel, estate planning tends to be a difficult issue for several families. They, should, nonetheless make sure to do it. When families fail to prepare and document their assets properly – such as houses, savings accounts and retirement plans, they may be left hanging for years in settling matters, and in some cases may have to hire expensive legal professionals to resolve issues.
In order to avoid future troubles, all families must have the following estate planning tools:
An up-to-date trust or will
While wills can be easily created, they need distribution of assets to go through probate. Probate is a legal process which involves the following actions:
– Validating the will of the deceased person
– Identification, inventory and appraisal of the property of the deceased
– Payment of debts & taxes; and
– Distribution of the property in accordance to the directives of the will
Trusts are generally more expensive and need the assistance of a professional, but offer several benefits which wills cannot. When structured properly, trusts can be instrumental in avoiding conservatorship or guardianship should you become incapacitated. Furthermore, wills become active after your death, whereas a trust works all the time, including the time when you may be incapacitated.
A well-drafted power of attorney
A power of attorney is a legal document which authorizes assigned individual to instantiate legal and/or financial decisions on the owner’s behalf should they become disabled, hospitalized, or incapacitated.
There are several different kinds of powers of attorney – for instance, some become valid immediately after they are signed while other come into effect at a specified date. While some power of attorneys are made to stay active for only short periods of time (such as when the owner is vacationing overseas and needs someone to deal with legal matters at home), others are fairly long-term. Regardless of the type, the power of attorney must be durable and well-drafted and should make all intentions and directives very clear.
Updated beneficiary designation forms
Beneficiary designation forms on life 401(k) accounts, insurance policies, and other forms of assets usually override any and all conflicting provisions within a trust or a will. The estate owner must make sure to check and update all forms regularly – at least every year.
While it may seem complicated, these tools are fairly simple and will go a long way in making sure that your estate remains protected and goes to your loved ones after your demise. You can also enlist the help of an estate planning professional, who will help you create and/or update these tools and offer suggestions if needed.
There are far more single people today than there were in the past – according to data obtained from the US Census, over 50 percent of the American population aged 15 and older today consists of single people – a huge jump from one-third in 1970.
No matter what the reason of their single-hood is (i.e. whether they are divorced, widowed or have never married in their life), singles must pay as much attention to their estate and its planning as their married counterparts – an issue that has been highlighted in great detail in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. Contrary to popular belief, those who are single also face issues related to estate planning, which require lots of time, careful planning, and the timely assistance of a professional.
Here are some of the more involved estate planning issues that singles face:
Heirs: For married people who die but have no will, the assets get automatically get transferred to their partner. However, that cannot be the case with single people. When a single person dies without a will, their assets are distributed along their bloodlines – first to the children (if they have any), then to parents, and finally to siblings and/or other relatives. Single people who have no surviving relatives at all might have their transfers end up becoming property of the state.
In order to make sure that their assets end up with their relatives, descendants (if any) and charitable organizations of their choosing, single people must make a will – or at least create an irrevocable trust which states exactly how they would want their assets to be transferred after their death.
Decision making: Many situations, such as an accident or a health event can leave us incapacitated and unable to make decisions. For married people, it is the spouse that makes the necessary decisions. Single people don’t have this convenience. This makes it all the more essential for them to designate a family member, friend or any other trusted or loved one who will make decisions and manage assets when they themselves are unable to do so. If the person fails to make proper directives, the decision-making task mat go to distant relatives or even to otherwise strangers who are appointed by the state.
In order to avoid this from happening, single people must an HIPAA authorization, a general power of attorney, and an advance health care directive. All of these allow them to choose a particular individual who will be entrusted to make medical and financial decisions on behalf of the person if and/or when they are incapacitated.
Beneficiaries: Some accounts, such as retirement plans, need the holders to list a beneficiary during the time of enrollment. This assignment is normally upheld upon the passing of the originating entity, regardless of whether it was given to another person in a will. Widowed singles and those who were previously married must reevaluate their designations for recipients in order to ensure that their transferable accounts are not given to those whom they don’t want to give (such as former spouses).