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6 Estate Planning Tips for Unmarried Couples

Whether you’re single or in a relationship, everyone needs an estate plan to provide them with peace of mind about the future. However, unmarried couples in particular face some unique challenges, because they don’t have the same legal protections as married couples. If you would want your partner to receive any or all of your assets, it’s essential that your estate plan reflects your wishes. Below, we explain why estate planning is so crucial for unmarried couples, and include six tips for setting up an estate plan that protects your partner. 

Why Do Unmarried Couples Need an Estate Plan?

Legal Recognition and Protection

In Arizona, the surviving spouse automatically inherits their partner’s share of all community property (assets acquired during their marriage). However, unless you are legally married, your partner will not be entitled to inherit any of your assets. Unless you plan ahead, your estate will be distributed according to the laws of intestate succession. For instance, if you own a home and pass away without an estate plan, the house will go to your parents, or to your children if you have any. Nothing will go to your partner unless you explicitly name them as a beneficiary in your estate plan. 

Healthcare Decisions

An estate plan doesn’t only cover what happens after you’re gone—including an advance directive will protect your assets if you ever become incapacitated. For example, naming your partner as your power of attorney will allow them to make important financial and/or medical decisions on your behalf. You can create a living will that details your wishes regarding the types of medical care you wish to receive, or you can grant financial power of attorney to your partner so they will be able to pay your bills.

Avoiding Probate

Estate planning can also help you avoid probate, a public legal process that is expensive and time-consuming. Placing your assets in a trust will ensure that your partner has timely access to them after you’re gone. For example, if you want them to inherit your home, you can place it in a trust and name your partner as beneficiary. That way, ownership will pass seamlessly to your partner, without having to wait through probate. And since all wills become public record, setting up a trust will help to protect your privacy. 

Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples: Six Essential Tips

1: Set Up a Living Trust

A revocable or “living” trust holds ownership of your assets after your death and dictates how you wish them to be distributed. Because the trust legally owns the assets, instead of you as an individual, this strategy offers many benefits. For example: 

  • The assets held in a trust avoid probate and are not public records—wills, on the other hand, are public and must go through probate to be validated. 
  • With a living trust, you can avoid probate. This means your partner and other beneficiaries will be able to have immediate access to their inheritance. 
  • Living trusts are flexible, allowing you to access the assets and modify the trust at any point during your lifetime. And after you pass away, the trust becomes irrevocable, which means it cannot be changed by anyone. 

2: Draft a Pour-Over Will

A pour-over will is a type of failsafe that works in conjunction with a living trust. It states that any assets not placed into the trust during your lifetime will immediately be transferred to the trust upon your death, so they can avoid probate. Just like you would with a standard will, you will need to name an executor to manage your estate and you will need to make sure it is signed and witnessed according to the law. 

3: Name Your Beneficiaries 

Your bank accounts, retirement accounts, and life insurance policy should all have a designated beneficiary. If you want your partner to inherit those assets, make sure to name them as the beneficiary. The beneficiary designations on these accounts override a will, so they are typically non-probate assets. You can also name your trust as beneficiary, so that your assets end up in the right hands at the right time.

4: Designate a Power of Attorney

Power of attorney (POA) grants someone the authority to manage your financial and/or medical affairs if you become incapacitated. A medical POA agent manages your healthcare, a financial POA manages your finances, and a general POA manages both. Your POA agent should be someone you can trust to be responsible and keep your best interests in mind, so your partner is likely a good candidate. 

5: Place Assets in Joint Tenancy

If you own titled assets like a house or vehicles that you would want your partner to inherit, you should consider joint tenancy. Unlike community property, if one of you passes away, the other will automatically inherit any property held in joint tenancy. This will also help you avoid probate, even if you don’t have a will or a trust. You and your partner will need to put both of your names on the asset’s title document, such as the deed to your house.

6: Regularly Review and Update Your Estate Plan

Estate plans need routine maintenance to make sure they reflect your wishes and adhere to the current laws. You should have a legal professional review and update your estate plan with you once every three years, or immediately after a major life event. For instance, if you and your partner get married, separate, or have kids, you will need to update your beneficiary designations. It’s also a good idea to update your estate plan after acquiring significant assets, experiencing major health changes, or moving to another state.

Estate Planning Attorney in Tucson, Arizona

Proper estate planning can ensure that your partner will be protected and that your wishes will be honored after you’re gone. Begin your estate planning journey today—schedule a consultation with one of the experienced estate planning lawyers at Phelps LaClair. We’ve been helping Arizona residents achieve peace of mind with expert estate planning services for over 40 years. Give us a call at 480-892-2488 to schedule an appointment in Tucson or one of our other convenient locations in the Phoenix area. 


Images used under creative commons license – commercial use (6/17/2024). Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

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