Back in the day, most American families resembled the household of Ward and June Cleaver – perhaps not so (seemingly) put-together, but at least in terms of married parents with children. Nowadays, however, our country is not so “Leave It To Beaver.” According to the Census Bureau, the number of partners living together has nearly tripled in the last two decades from six million to seventeen million. Part of the reason for this may be that people, on average, are getting married later in life. To be sure, in 2021, the average age to marry for the first time was approximately 30 years old, nearly a decade older than the average age of 22 years old in 1947. Another – and perhaps the most significant – reason for the increasing numbers of unmarried couples living together is asset protection.
With the average American not getting married until at least 30 years old, most individuals are coming into marriages with assets. Many of these individuals have already worked for more than a decade, thereby potentially owning a vehicle, real estate, business interests, retirement accounts, and so on. On the other hand, many of these people may have racked up significant debt. Essentially, when most Americans marry today, there is often more at stake.
These stakes are heightened even more when families are blended after first marriages or marriages involving stepchildren. Currently, forty percent of families in the U.S. include at least one partner having a child from a previous relationship. This is why estate planning for unmarried couples is so important. Unmarried couples should take extra care to have estate planning documents in place so that their wishes are clear, and to protect each other in case of a serious illness and ultimately, death.
By law, a significant other does not have the legal rights that a spouse would have to serve as personal representative for their partner’s estate. Similarly, there is no statutory right to inherit property, including any family allowance which the surviving partner may need to help care for the unmarried couple’s children or him/herself. In addition, a significant other – no matter how long he or she has been living with a partner – does not have legal rights to act as a guardian or conservator for their partner or to make medical decisions if their partner becomes incapacitated.
These issues can be resolved by both partners having a properly executed Last Will and Testament, health care power of attorney, and financial power of attorney. The Last Will and Testament designates an executor who will be in charge of the decedent’s estate, and dictates how the decedent’s assets will be distributed. Without a Will, an unmarried partner will not inherit any assets, unless they are owned jointly or the partner is named as a beneficiary. Having a health care power of attorney and a financial power of attorney gives a partner the power to make decisions if their loved one becomes incapacitated.
Disputes between the adult children of unmarried couples are all too common if a comprehensive estate plan is not completed. Consider a lifetime partner becoming too sick to communicate his or her end-of-life wishes. Even after a lifetime together, the adult children will have the legal upper hand, regardless of what the couple has discussed. While it may be uncomfortable to think about, putting yourself, your partner, and your children in this situation is less than ideal.
Having practiced estate planning for sixteen years, I’ve seen almost every family dynamic under the sun, and all of them can be worked through. Once the planning is complete, unmarried partners can rest assured their wishes will be carried out. Not to mention, the Cleaver’s would be proud!
The information contained above is for informational purposes only, and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel. You should not act or rely upon this information.