Can You Feel the Love Tonight? Estate Planning for Couples

Ward and Smith, P.A.

Ward and Smith, P.A.

Let's be honest.  Legal documents are not written in anyone's love language.  On Valentines Day, we undoubtedly would prefer to exchange thoughtful presents, enjoy an intimate meal with our significant other, or blush at the occasional small (or grand) romantic gesture.  But couples who plot a course to accomplish their shared estate planning goals are giving a truly valuable – if not overly romantic – gift. 

Love and marriage alter more than our social calendars:  Families grow, and future legacies shift when we fall in love.  It is important for all couples – married, getting married, having children, or not – to consider these matters together and take steps to ensure that your plans on paper match your shared vision for your life together.   

First and foremost, it is critical for the lucky-in-love (just like everyone else) to have an up-to-date Will.  Without one, your loved ones can be left with a messy administrative burden at a mournful time.  To complicate matters further, state law would determine who receives your assets at death.  These laws do not always align with personal goals, particularly for many blended families.  Even if your Wills are updated, periodic financial reviews are critical to ensure your loved ones are adequately provided for in your plan because not all asset transfers are governed by your Will (or Trust).  The use of beneficiary designations, while administratively handy, can wreak havoc on an estate plan if those designations are not updated following a change in family or relationship status.   

Couples also should discuss, understand, and execute their own medical and financial powers of attorney to authorize their spouse, partner, children, or other trusted agents to act on their behalf, if needed.  These documents are important from a legal standpoint, but it can be even more important to have frank and honest discussions about your wishes with your partner to better enable them to act in your best interest.    

For couples considering marriage, it is very important to understand that state law grants certain property rights to spouses.  Those rights should not be ignored as you plan your future together.  Married couples may wish to opt out of some of these state law "defaults," and unmarried couples should plan carefully to avoid any unwanted surprises for their partner or children.  Far from being cold-hearted, pre- and post-marital or cohabitation agreements can set proper expectations and provide clarity for partners regarding how property rights may apply in the future. 

Many couples share a universal goal: Ensuring that loved ones will be financially and emotionally supported.  But the particulars of that support are not always one-size-fits-all.  Couples may need to engage in trust planning for certain beneficiaries, discuss differing guardianship preferences for children, navigate family dynamics, and analyze the tax implications of their plan.

While these conversations are not necessarily the pillow-talk of dreams, leaving these wishes unspoken or undocumented can create uncertainty and heartache.  Couples should feel good about giving their partner the gift of a cohesive estate plan:  Providing security, support and clarity in a shared future.        

This is a part of our February series: "Love, Relationships, and the Law."  

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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