ESTATE PLANNING CONSIDERATIONS FOR SINGLE WOMEN
As a trusts and estates attorney and a single mother of three children, I have a particularly heightened understanding of the importance of women creating an estate plan. Admittedly, although I had drafted countless estate planning documents while an attorney at a large Manhattan law firm, it was not until I learned that I was pregnant that I felt compelled to do my own planning. Becoming a parent can certainly serve as a strong motivator for those who had previously procrastinated in the estate planning department. The fact is, absent a “triggering event”, such as the birth of a child, marriage, a death in the family or divorce, many people postpone creating an estate plan. Others erroneously assume that they do not have an “estate” worth planning or that their families will handle everything when the need inevitably arises. However, everyone, regardless of their age and net worth, whether or not they have a partner or children, requires comprehensive estate planning in order to ensure that their loved ones, as well as charitable organizations or business interests, are adequately and appropriately provided for, consistent with their wishes.
As difficult as it may be to contemplate, death is inevitable, and many become incompetent or incapacitated. We can either choose to ignore this reality, or accept it and be proactive in protecting our loved ones and ourselves. Without an estate plan, the state government and the courts hold the decision-making power with respect to your estate, including who will inherit your assets, who will become the guardian of any minor children upon your death and who will make health care and financial decisions on your behalf in the event of your incapacity, all without regard to your personal wishes.
Specifically, if an individual dies without a will (or intestate"), the courts will take control of the individual's estate and distribute his or her assets according to the intestacy laws of the state in which the individual resides at the time of his or her death. All too often, particularly for single individuals, those who ultimately share in a decedent's inheritance under the intestacy laws are not the same people who would have otherwise inherited the property had the individual died with a will. Individuals also need to appoint a health care agent under a document called a health care proxy to make medical decisions on their behalf, in the event the individual becomes incompetent or incapacitated. It is also important that individuals indicate their wishes regarding whether or not to remain on life support using a living will. Through the use of a durable power of attorney, a revocable trust or a combination thereof, individuals may designate an agent or trustee to manage their personal assets in the event of their incapacity or incompetence. Thus, at a minimum, an estate plan for an individual, whether single, married or divorced, will include the four aforementioned documents: a will, health care proxy, living will and power of attorney.
Estate planning for single individuals who are not married, but have partners, is particularly necessary, as the state does not typically impart partners with any legal inheritance rights, and assets can instead pass to their next living heir. Similarly, if a single individual has children without a second parent, he or she should name a guardian and trustee under his or her Will to make sure that the child, and any assets for the benefit of that child, are taken care of by trusted persons.