Estate Planning Basics for Couples

  • March 10, 2017
  • by Emily
Estate Planning Basics for Couples

I admit, estate planning is not as romantic as the images of diamond rings on beds of rose petals that seem to circulate around Valentine’s day. But don’t be fooled. Getting your affairs in order while you are still healthy and seemingly immortal is a sign of how much you love your significant other. You are making sure that even if you are not around, he or she will be protected from financial calamity. 

Here are some basics for couples planning for the worst:

1. Get Married

If you are in a long-term, committed relationship but aren’t married, you are leaving yourself (and your partner) vulnerable if something happens. Spouses automatically are the next of kin. You can visit your spouse in the hospital, make decisions for him or her and decide what happens with the body if your spouse dies. In the event one partner dies, the surviving spouse  may be entitled to Social Security survivor benefits. None of those things are possible if you are not married.

Although the exact inheritance rules vary by state, spouses also inherit their husband or wife’s property by default. So if you don’t do anything else, just being married will provide more protections than if you are just boyfriend/girlfriend.  

In a few states a thing called a common-law marriage exists that applies to couples who are not officially married but have been acting 'as if married'.  The rules vary widely by jurisdiction. In the United States, the common-law marriage states are: (Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and the District of Columbia).  It would be unwise to rely on the idea that you've been together for 10 years and you live in one of those states as being an officially recognized marriage. You also don’t want to have to dig up proof that you have been living together (a joint utility bill from 10 years ago, for example) in a hurry in an already stressful situation. 

Besides, of all the things on this list, the getting married part is definitely the most fun!

 

2. Get Life Insurance

Couples work as partnerships. Whether you share your expenses 50/50 or one partner earns 100% of your joint income, there will be financial implications if the partnership is suddenly a solo show. Losing a spouse is shattering emotionally. Having life insurance means that it won’t be shattering financially, too. 

Note that even partners that don’t have an income should have life insurance. If you are a stay-at-home parent, think about how much it would cost to pay someone to take care of your child(ren) while your spouse works.

When it comes to getting life insurance, do it sooner than later. Rates are better when you are young and healthy.

The best kinds of policies are fixed rate 'term life' plans.  See our article on Buying the Right Life Insurance for more details.

Lastly, if you have a life insurance policy make sure the beneficiary information is up to date!

 

3. Jointly Own Assets

Couples should have both partners’ names on the title for their home(s), vehicle(s), bank account(s) and any other assets that you want the other person to have if you die. Jointly owning these assets has several benefits. First of all, jointly owned assets are not part of the deceased partner’s estate. Depending on what state you live in, this could mean that your assets are protected if your partner dies with significant debts.

Jointly owning bank accounts means that you would be able to access your spouse’s funds immediately.

Make sure that you’ve checked the “survivorship” box on the title for any property or vehicles that you own jointly. This affirms that if one of the owners dies, the other owner inherits his or her portion of the ownership. It is especially important if either of the spouses has children from a previous relationship who, in the absence of a will, could claim a portion of the estate automatically. 

 

4. Write a Will

If you’ve followed the steps above, you should be fairly well prepared. Nonetheless, having a will that expressly outlines who should inherit your property - even if all of your property should go to your spouse - will reduce the likelihood of financial complications for the surviving spouse. As noted above, this is especially important if you have children from a previous relationship, because they could have a right to half of your estate if you haven’t explicitly given everything to your spouse. 

estate planning - last will and testament

Having a will is also important if you have children, even if those children are also your spouse’s children. A will is where you outline what happens to your children if both of you die. It’s not a very happy thought, but at least if you plan ahead you can be confident that if your children are orphaned you can at least choose who will take care of them in your absence.

Use a professional attorney to get your will drawn up. It is worth the peace of mind that it is done right. A bar napkin with some scrawling on it, a free online template, or a very nicely worded letter just isn't the same thing.


Losing a spouse is, according to psychology researchers, the most devastating loss humans experience. It doesn’t have to be a financial disaster, too. Talking about death might not be very romantic, but making sure your significant other is financially protected after your death is a sign of true love. 

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