Unmarried Couples Face Estate Planning Hurdles

People who choose to live together rather than get married, whatever their reasons, don’t love each other any less.

But the law tends to think they do.
“Unmarried couples do not have legal protections enjoyed by married couples, such as automatic inheritance rights and the ability to make decisions should a spouse become incapacitated,” according to a recent piece in the Los Angeles Times. “Unmarried couples should take specific legal steps to ensure that their wishes have legal force.”
“In general, estates must deal with two major areas of the law: probate law, which governs the distribution of your property after your death, and gift and estate tax laws, which govern the taxation of the property you transfer to others,” an article on the website Smarterdollars.com states. “As a partner in an unmarried couple, you have reason to be concerned with both of these areas. Laws that protect and favor married couples don’t apply to you. Without proper protection, your surviving partner could be ordered out of a house you share, your next of kin could dispose of your estate in a way of which you would not approve or taxes could take a big bite out of the bequest you leave to your partner. Your partner could be left out of financial and medical decision making if you become seriously ill or incapacitated. Don’t take anything for granted. Get your estate plan in order. You owe it to yourself and your partner to ensure that your estate is handled according to your wishes.”
“For the increasing number of couples unable to or unwilling to get married, financial planning is crucial to avoid unpleasant surprises,” the website Investopedia.com advises. “After all, when it comes to taxes and other financial benefits, we live in a society that provides benefits to those who wed and punishes those who don’t.”
The most important step unmarried couples should take, the experts agree, is to prepare a will specifying their wishes in the event of death or incapacity. That’s followed by having an estate plan. The L.A. Times story state that “people with estates worth more than about $500,000 should consult an attorney who specializes in estate planning.”

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When it Comes to Wills: Details, Details, Details

When it comes to deciding who gets what in a will, no detail is too small.
That includes silly little knicknacks and items of kitsch that mom and dad may have accumulated over the years, as families sometimes discover to their lasting dismay when no instructions exist on divying such things up among the children, grandchildren and other relatives.
Most people see to the money they expect to leave behind in terms of its distribution, but turning a blind eye to the rest of a person’s possessions can lead to hard feelings and heartache for survivors.

“Unlike financial assets, which can generally be divided easily amongst heirs, tangible personal property is unique” according to an article by Deborah L. Jacobs on Forbes.com. “And the complexity of distributing a lifetime’s worth of possessions is something that many people overlook. Families have been torn apart over everything from ownership of a valuable painting, the grandfather clock and the gun collection, to who gets Mama’s recipe box. Sometimes the object in question is an item of substantial material value, but just as often, it seems, the appeal is purely sentimental. People get emotionally attached to objects that symbolize the person they are mourning.”
“The passing of a beloved family member is a tragic event,” according to a posting to submityourarticles.com by Australian attorney Mark Stevens. “While many individuals will work with estate planning lawyers to create a will, some individuals do not create a will and inheritance disputes to contest a will might occur. When disputes arise, lawyers who specialize in family law can help families settle the situation.”
The solution to this situation is simple: Family members need to talk to one another beforehand, in order to keep from yelling at one another after the fact.
“Discussing these issues while parents are still alive is far preferable to letting children duke it out for themselves later,” Forbes.com staff member Jacobs wrote. “Some people address this subject before they die, by giving away possessions as they downsize, by asking which things have special meaning to particular family members, or by leaving directions about how personal property should be divided. Others have had adult children express their preferences by putting their names on the bottom of things while the older generation is still alive.”
Communication, as is so often the case, is key.

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