When a married couple arranges an estate plan, many state laws make the transfer of assets between spouses relatively painless. Usually, the surviving spouse is the first in line to receive those assets. But not all couples choose to get married, and in many places, same-sex couples aren’t legally allowed to marry at all. It’s important to understand how an estate plan works if you’re not married and how to ensure that your significant other receives the assets that you designate without a difficult and expensive legal battle.
Using a Will to Name Your Partner as Beneficiary
When there is no valid will for someone who dies, the laws of intestate succession generally dictate how an estate is handled. This means, a court distributes your property according to the laws of your state. For unmarried couples, this can be problematic, as without specific directions left behind in a will, the assets in the estate will be passed on to relatives of the deceased. The rules can get complicated, but generally the estate will pass to surviving children, parents, and siblings. A life partner of years or decades can be completely cut out of the loop.
The remedy for this is simple: create a last will and testament. Using your will, you can name anyone you choose as a beneficiary to all or part of your estate, including your unmarried partner. Be sure to have your will witnessed and signed—notarizing isn’t strictly necessarily, but it will make things much easier for your partner legally if it is.
You can also use your will to name your partner as the personal representative to your estate, granting him or her the power to oversee the management and final distribution of your assets to your beneficiaries.
Using Trusts and Beneficiary Designations
You may also choose to use a trust to pass on your assets to your partner as a part of your estate plan. Trusts offer several advantages, including privacy. The contents of your will belong to the public record and will eventually be viewable by anyone; however, a trust is a private document. Assets in your trust will avoid the probate process and pass directly to your partner, saving both time and money. Trusts can be a bit more complicated to arrange than a will, so you may want to talk with an attorney about how to set one up properly.
For some assets, such as 401(k) retirement accounts, pay-on-death bank accounts, and certain other accounts or benefits, you may be able to simply choose your partner as beneficiary. These kinds of assets pass directly to whomever you designate as a beneficiary, bypassing the need for a will, trust, or probate entirely.
Another option in the state of Washington is a domestic partnership. The paperwork for this can be filed with the Washington Secretary of State relatively painlessly, provided a couple of conditions are met. For opposite-sex couples, at least one partner must be 62 years of age or older. Same-sex couples have no age restrictions and can join a domestic partnership any time. A registered domestic partnership grants many of the same rights that marriages does, including (but not limited to) the following:
- Right to administer the estate of the deceased if there is no valid will
- Right to inherit a portion of assets if there is no valid will
- Hospital visitation rights
- Survivor’s benefits from workers’ compensation
- Community property rights
- Shared burial plot rights
There are many other rights that a domestic partnership grants, but it also comes with many of the responsibilities of marriage, including sharing community debt and the ability to seek alimony payments if the partnership ends.
Get Help With Your Estate Plan
A basic estate plan isn’t difficult to put together yourself, but if you want to consider your unmarried partner, there are a few hurdles you’ll want to clear to make sure that your partner is protected. An attorney who has experience with estate plans for unmarried couples, whether opposite-sex or same-sex, can help ensure that your loved ones are cared for once you’re gone.
The attorneys at The Law Offices of Molly B. Kenny have over two decades of experience managing estate plans and welcome all couples who need good estate planning. If you’d like to get help with your plan today, please call us for a private consultation in our Bellevue law office at (425) 460-0550.