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Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples
If you have committed to a long-term life partner but don’t plan to get married, you are not alone. According to recent U.S. Census Data, the number of adults in cohabiting, unmarried relationships is up 29% since 2007.
Although many people think estate planning is only for married couples, the opposite is true. Couples in unmarried relationships who do not set up an estate plan are more vulnerable than married couples when it comes to making end-of-life decisions for each other and passing property after death. In addition, without legal documents entitling them to information about their partner’s health status or allowing them to remain in the couple’s residence after one of them dies, unmarried partners may find themselves literally shut out in the cold.
Luckily, there are a few simple steps unmarried couples can take to protect against this bleak scenario.
Ensure That Your Children Are Taken Care Of
The first most important step for all couples with minor children, whether those couples are married or not, is to create a Will naming guardians. Without a Will setting forth your wishes, if you die unexpectedly, this important decision will be left to a Judge. Although Judges do their best to pick the right person, Judges almost always pick a family member, which may not be what you want. Naming a guardian is particularly critical, however, when your partner is not the children’s biological or adoptive parent but has become a trusted primary caregiver. If you want your partner to be your children’s guardian or remain active in their lives if something unexpected happens, you need to state your wishes in a Will.
Ensure That Your House and Property Pass According to Your Wishes
If you die without an estate plan, your assets will pass according to state intestacy laws. For married couples, the surviving spouse usually inherits a significant portion of the deceased spouse’s estate. For unmarried couples, however, this is not the case. Your unmarried partner is entitled to none of your estate unless you have a Will or a Trust leaving your assets to them. Even worse, if your home is in your name only, if you die, your spouse will not inherit your home and will have no right to live in the home even if they contributed to mortgage payments while you were together.
Ensure That You Have Named the Proper Beneficiaries for Accounts that Pass Automatically on Your Death
Unmarried couples also should ensure that they have updated the beneficiaries for all accounts that pass automatically upon death, which typically include life insurance policies and retirement accounts. If you want your partner to inherit these accounts, you must name them as the beneficiary because the beneficiary designations in these accounts take precedence over a Will or a Trust.
Ensure That Your Partner Is Involved in Health Care and End-of-Life Decisions
Health care decisions are also a critical area for unmarried couples to plan proactively. Whereas spouses have the right to make healthcare decisions for an incapacitated spouse and can obtain medical information related to their spouse, unmarried partners do not share these rights. If you want your partner to make health care decisions for you or have access to your health care information if you are not able to communicate with your doctor, you must have a Power of Attorney appointing your partner as your agent for health care decisions, and a HIPAA authorization allowing that your partner to access your healthcare records.