Do Unmarried Couples Need Estate Planning?

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A couple that has no intention of ever getting married should know that they won’t get the automatic rights and protections that legally wed spouses get, particularly when it comes to death. Therefore, unmarried couples must make a concerted effort to cover all the bases, says CNBC’s recent article entitled “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die.”

The number of unmarried couples who live together reached 18 million in 2016, a 29% increase from 14 million in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center. Among adults age 50 and older, the increase was 75% with roughly 4 million cohabiting in 2016, compared to 2.3 million in 2007.

These couples still face some key differences from their married counterparts. For example, there’s no filing federal taxes as a couple, and if an employer allows health insurance for a partner, the amount the company contributes is taxable to the employee, rather than being tax-free for a spouse.

End-of-life considerations also need attention. Unmarried couples can sign some legal documents that will dictate what happens if one of them either becomes incapacitated or passes away, which is a type of estate plan.

If you die without a will or intestate, the state probate court will decide how your assets are distributed. A will by itself also won’t address everything. If you want to make sure your tax-advantaged retirement accounts — like your Roth IRA and 401(k) plans — go to your partner, make sure that individual is the designated beneficiary on those accounts. Even if your will says otherwise, whoever’s listed as the beneficiaries on those accounts will get the money. It’s the same for insurance policies and annuities.

If both partner’s names are on checking, savings, or investment accounts, the account will pass directly to the surviving partner. However, for an account with only one partner’s name on it, ask the bank about the appropriate form to be completed so the money is left directly to the surviving partner. This is what’s called a transfer-on-death or payable-on-death designation. Without this designation, the assets will end up in probate and distributed either in accordance with the will or intestacy state laws.

Regardless of how the mortgage is paid or whose name is on the loan, the person named on the deed is the owner. If the house is in one partner’s name, it won’t automatically pass to the partne, as it would with a married couple (via joint tenancy with rights of survivorship). It would become part of the probate estate. To remedy this, you can retitle the home so that both partners are listed as joint owners on the deed “with rights of survivorship.” Each partner then equally owns the house and is entitled to assume full ownership upon the death of the other. Note that there could be other factors to consider before adding a partner’s name to an existing deed, such as expenses, tax implications, and protection from potential creditors. A partner owning the house could leave it to the surviving partner in the will. Remember, though, any asset passing via the will is subject to probate, which may lead to unforeseen issues.

In addition, a partner has no legal say in his or her partner’s medical treatment if he or she is in a situation where they can’t make decisions for themselves. To give the partner that right, partners can grant each other a durable power of attorney over health care. This allows the partner to make important health-care decisions if the one in the hospital is unable to do so. This is different from a living will, which states a person’s wishes if they are on life support or suffer from a terminal condition. This document helps guide the agent’s decision-making. If no one is named, medical personnel must follow the instructions in that document.

Likewise, partners may want to give each other durable power of attorney for finances. This would let them handle one another’s money, including accessing accounts as necessary, if the incapacitated partner could not do so.  If the partners have dependents, name a guardian for them in the will. Otherwise, that decision will be left to the courts.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 16, 2019) “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die”

 

 

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