Whether you are a newlywed or are married for a while, add “estate planning” to your do list. First, be aware of the impact of doing nothing. If you were to become hospitalized for any reason, the person you love most in the world would not have the legal authority to make your medical decisions and may not even have the authority to see you in the hospital. Your beloved would have no access to your bank accounts and could even be put into a position of having to move out of your shared home abruptly in the event of your death.
Indeed, once your marriage is official, your relationship becomes entirely different from both a legal and financial perspective. With this in mind, if you’ve recently said “I do” or have plans to do so in the near future, here are six essential items you need to address in your plan.
1. Beneficiary Designations
One of the easiest—and often overlooked—estate planning tasks for, especially for newlyweds, is updating your beneficiary designations. Some of your most valuable assets, such as life insurance policies, 401(k)s, and IRAs, do not transfer via a will or trust. Instead, they have beneficiary designations that allow you to name the person (or persons) you’d like to inherit the asset upon your death.
You should name your spouse as your primary beneficiary (if that’s your wish), and then name at least one contingent, or alternate, beneficiary in case your spouse dies before you. And if you have kids, remember to never name a minor child as a beneficiary of your life insurance or retirement accounts, even as a contingent beneficiary.
If a minor is listed as the beneficiary, the assets would be distributed to a court-appointed custodian, who will be in charge of managing the funds until the child reaches the age of majority, at which point all benefits are distributed to the beneficiary outright.
If you want your child to inherit your life insurance or retirement account, you should set up a trust to receive those assets instead. And if you have significant retirement account assets, you may not even want those assets to go outright to your spouse (or future spouse), but instead, you may want to use a trust to distribute your retirement account assets. If you don’t want your retirement assets to go outright to your named beneficiaries and want them to have the maximum tax advantages, contact us for a Family Wealth Planning Session™.
2. A Will
A last will and testament allows you to designate who should receive your assets upon your death. If you are married, you likely want your spouse to receive most, if not all, of your assets, and if so, you should name him or her as the primary beneficiary in your will.
Although your spouse would likely inherit all of your assets should you die without a will, known as dying intestate, depending on state law and whether or not you have children, your assets may not get divided according to your wishes, so it’s always a good idea to create a will (or update your old one). And to ensure that your will is created and executed properly, you should always work with trusted legal counsel like us, and never rely on generic, fill-in-the-blank documents you find online.
Trust us—you don’t know what you don’t know here. Online legal document services may be better than nothing for some people, but they may actually be worse than nothing for those who truly want to ensure they’ve considered all of the options. For instance, an online document service cannot help you anticipate and plan for all the potential issues related to your family dynamics and assets that can arise and lead to conflicts and disputes between your loved ones. Yet that’s exactly what you would get when you work with a trusted legal advisor like us and use our comprehensive inquiry process.
Additionally, if you intend to leave assets to someone other than your spouse in your will, or for some reason plan to leave your spouse out of your will, be sure to check our state’s laws governing marital property. In some states, a surviving spouse is entitled to a certain percentage of your assets regardless of what’s in your will. Consult with us, your Personal Family Lawyer®, for clarification on our state’s marital property laws.
Finally, although a will is an essential part of nearly every estate plan, as you’ll see below, having a will alone is rarely enough to ensure your spouse and other loved ones stay out of court and out of conflict when something happens to you.
3. A Trust
Upon your death, assets included in a will must first pass through the court process known as probate before they can be transferred to your spouse or any other beneficiary. Probate can take months or even years to complete, and it can even sometimes lead to ugly conflicts between your spouse and other family members. Not to mention, your spouse will likely have to hire an attorney to represent him or her during probate, which can result in significant legal fees that can deplete your estate.
Furthermore, a will only governs the distribution of your assets upon your death. It offers you zero protection if you become incapacitated and are unable to make decisions about your own medical, financial, and legal needs. If you become incapacitated with only a will in place, your spouse would have to petition the court to be appointed as your guardian to manage your affairs.
Here’s the bottom line: If your estate plan consists of a will alone, you are guaranteeing your spouse and family will have to go to court if you become incapacitated or when you die.
To avoid the time, cost, and conflict inherent to an estate plan consisting solely of a will, you should consider creating a revocable living trust, along with your will. If your assets are properly titled in the name of your living trust, they would pass directly to your spouse upon your incapacity or death, without the need for any court intervention.
What’s more, in the terms of your trust, you can even outline the specific conditions that must be met for you to be deemed incapacitated, which would allow you to have some control over your life in the event you become incapacitated by illness or injury. This is in contrast to a will, which only goes into effect upon your death and then merely governs the distribution of your assets.
Finally, if you have minor children from a previous marriage, there is an inherent risk of conflict between your spouse and your children because your children and current spouse may have conflicting interests about what happens to your assets in the event of your death or incapacity. If you want to ensure a lifelong relationship of harmony and ease between your children and your spouse, , contact us—we have very specific strategies we can use to support that outcome.
If you you’re married, soon-to-be-married or recently married and anything in this article makes you realize that estate planning isn’t something to put off, but a huge gift to the people you love, contact us to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session™. This is the first step in considering all of your assets, all of your family dynamics, and getting clear on the right plan, at the right price, for the people you
4. Durable Financial Power of Attorney
Estate planning is not just about planning for what happens when you die. It is equally important—if not even more so—to plan for your potential incapacity due to a serious accident or illness.
If you become incapacitated and have not legally named someone to handle your financial and legal interests, your spouse would have to petition the court to be appointed as your guardian or conservator to handle your affairs. Though your spouse would typically be given priority, this is not always the case, and the court could choose someone else.
And the person the court appoints could be a family member you would never want having control over your life, or it could even be a crooked professional guardian, who would charge exorbitant fees, keep you isolated from your family, and sell off your assets for their own benefit. In any case, if you have not chosen someone to make your financial and legal decisions in the event of your incapacity, the court will choose for you.
To ensure your spouse has the ability to make these decisions, you should create a power of attorney documents to give him or her this legal authority. You actually need two of these documents, and the first one is a durable financial power of attorney. A durable financial power of attorney would grant your spouse the immediate authority to manage your financial, legal, and business affairs in the event of your incapacity.
With a durable financial power of attorney, your spouse would have a broad range of powers to handle things like paying your bills and taxes, running your business, collecting government benefits, and selling your home, as well as managing your banking and investment accounts. Granting durable financial power of attorney is especially important if you live together before you get married because, without it, the person named by the court could legally force your soon-to-be spouse out with little to no notice, leaving your beloved homeless.
The second document you will need is a medical power of attorney, which we will discuss next.
5. Medical Power of Attorney and Living Will
In addition to the durable financial power of attorney, you will also need to create a medical power of attorney. A medical power of attorney is an advance healthcare directive that would give your spouse (or someone else) the immediate legal authority to make decisions about your healthcare and medical treatment should you become incapacitated and unable to make those decisions for yourself.
For example, a medical power of attorney would allow your spouse to make decisions about your medical treatment if you are in a serious car accident or hospitalized with a debilitating illness. Without a medical power of attorney in place, your spouse would have to petition the court to become your legal guardian.
Even though your spouse is generally the court’s first choice for guardian, you should spare your spouse the time, money, and trauma involved with the guardianship process by creating a medical power of attorney and naming him or her as your agent.
While a medical power of attorney allows your spouse to make healthcare decisions on your behalf during your incapacity, a living will is an advance directive that explains how you would want your medical care handled, particularly at the end of life. A medical power of attorney and a living will work closely together, and for this reason, they are sometimes combined into a single document.
Within the terms of your living will, you can spell out things, such as if and when you would want life support removed should you ever require it, whether you would want hydration and nutrition supplied, and even what kind of food you want and who can visit you in the hospital.
One tragic example of just how nightmarish things can become in the event you are incapacitated without advance directives in place is the case of Florida’s Terry Schiavo, who spent 15 years in a vegetative state after suffering a heart attack at age 26. Because she had neither a medical power of attorney nor a living will Schiavo’s young husband fought her parents in court for years for permission to remove her from life support, and the resulting litigation made news headlines around the world and exposed a deep divide among Americans over the right-to-die movement.
6. Name Legal Guardians For Your Minor Children
If either you and your spouse have minor children, together or from a prior relationship; or, if you are planning to have kids, it is imperative that you select and legally document long-term guardians for your children. Guardians are people legally named to care for your children in the event something should happen to you and your spouse.
And do not assume that just because you have named godparents or have grandparents living nearby that is enough. You must name guardians in a legal document, or you risk creating needless conflict and a long, expensive court process for your loved ones.
When working with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, naming legal guardians for your kids could not be any easier or more convenient. Indeed, creating the legal documents that will ensure your children will be raised to adulthood by the people you trust most and are never placed in the care of strangers (even temporarily) is one of our specialties. And we accomplish this using our comprehensive system called the Kids Protection Plan®.
The Kids Protection Plan® provides you with all of the legal planning tools needed to make sure there is never a question about who will take care of your kids if you and your spouse are in an accident or suffer some other life-threatening emergency. Even if you have already named guardians for your kids in your will, either on your own or with the help of a lawyer, we often find that these plans contain at least one of six common mistakes that can leave your kids at risk.
This happens because most lawyers are not trained to understand exactly what is necessary for planning and ensuring the well-being and care of minor children. However, all Personal Family Lawyers® have been trained by the author of the best-selling book, Wear Clean Underwear!: A Fast, Fun, Friendly, and Essential Guide to Legal Planning for Busy Parents, on legal planning for the unique needs of families with minor children at home.
Best of all, we have created an easy-to-use (and 100% free) website you can visit right now to take the first steps to create legal documents naming the long-term guardians you would want to care for your children if you could not. Do it here now: https://thompsonlaw.kidsprotectionplan.com/
From there, you can schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session™ with us where we will put the full Kids Protection Plan® in place, and determine if there is anything else you might need to ensure the well-being and care of your children no matter what happens.
Do not wait to take care of this urgent matter. In fact, if you have minor children, your number-one planning priority should be naming legal guardians to care for your children should anything happen to you. And if you need any help with this process, reach out to us, your Personal Family Lawyer®, and we will be glad to walk you through it.
This article is a service of Norm Thompson, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That's why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.
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