We imagine that at this happiest time of your life, planning for your potential incapacity and eventual death is probably the farthest thing from your mind right now, but getting it handled as part of your wedding planning is the greatest gift you can give your new spouse.
With this in mind, here are six essential items you need to address in your plan.
1. Beneficiary Designations
One of the easiest—and often overlooked—estate planning tasks for newlyweds is updating your beneficiary designations. Some of your most valuable assets, such as life insurance policies, 401(k)s, and IRAs, do not transfer via a will or trust. Instead, they have beneficiary designations that allow you to name the person (or persons) you’d like to inherit the asset upon your death.
You should name your spouse as your primary beneficiary (if that’s your wish), and then name at least one contingent, or alternate, beneficiary in case your spouse dies before you. And if you have kids, remember to never name a minor child as a beneficiary of your life insurance or retirement accounts, even as a contingent beneficiary.
If a minor is listed as the beneficiary, the assets would be distributed to a court-appointed custodian, who will be in charge of managing the funds until the child reaches the age of majority, at which point all benefits are distributed to the beneficiary outright.
If you want your child to inherit your life insurance or retirement account, you should set up a trust to receive those assets instead. And if you have significant retirement account assets, you may not even want those assets to go outright to your spouse (or future spouse), but instead, you may want to use a trust to distribute your retirement account assets.
2. Last Will & Testament
A last will and testament allows you to designate who should receive your assets upon your death. If you are newly married, you likely want your spouse to receive most, if not all, of your assets, and if so, you should name him or her as the primary beneficiary in your will.
Although your spouse would likely inherit all of your assets should you die without a will, known as dying intestate, depending on state law and whether or not you have children, your assets may not get divided according to your wishes, so it’s always a good idea to create a will (or update your old one) when you get married. And to ensure that your will is created and executed properly, you should always work with trusted legal counsel like us, and never rely on generic, fill-in-the-blank documents you find online.
Although a will is an essential part of nearly every estate plan, as you’ll see below, having a will alone is rarely enough to ensure your spouse and other loved ones stay out of court and out of conflict when something happens to you.
3. Revocable Living Trust
Upon your death, assets included in a will must first pass through the court process known as probate before they can be transferred to your spouse or any other beneficiary. Probate can take months or even years to complete, and it can even sometimes lead to ugly conflicts between your spouse and other family members. Not to mention, your spouse will likely have to hire an attorney to represent him or her during probate, which can result in significant legal fees that can deplete your estate.
To avoid the time, cost, and conflict inherent to an estate plan consisting solely of a will, you should consider creating a revocable living trust, along with your will. If your assets are properly titled in the name of your living trust, they would pass directly to your spouse upon your incapacity or death, without the need for any court intervention.
What’s more, in the terms of your trust, you can even outline the specific conditions that must be met for you to be deemed incapacitated, which would allow you to have some control over your life in the event you become incapacitated by illness or injury. This is in contrast to a will, which only goes into effect upon your death and then merely governs the distribution of your assets.
Finally, if you are getting married and have minor children from a previous marriage, there is an inherent risk of conflict between your new spouse and your children because your children and new spouse have conflicting interests about what happens to your assets in the event of your death or incapacity.
4. Durable Financial Power of Attorney
If you become incapacitated and have not legally named someone to handle your financial and legal interests, your spouse would have to petition the court to be appointed as your guardian or conservator to handle your affairs. Though your spouse would typically be given priority, this is not always the case, and the court could choose someone else. And the person the court appoints could be a family member you would never want having control over your life, or it could even be a crooked professional guardian, who would charge exorbitant fees, keep you isolated from your family, and sell off your assets for their own benefit. In any case, if you have not chosen someone to make your financial and legal decisions in the event of your incapacity, the court will choose for you.
To ensure your spouse has the ability to make these decisions, you should create a power of attorney documents to give him or her this legal authority. A durable financial power of attorney would grant your spouse the immediate authority to manage your financial, legal, and business affairs in the event of your incapacity.
With a durable financial power of attorney, your spouse would have a broad range of powers to handle things like paying your bills and taxes, running your business, collecting government benefits, and selling your home, as well as managing your banking and investment accounts. Granting durable financial power of attorney is especially important if you live together before you get married because, without it, the person named by the court could legally force your soon-to-be spouse out with little to no notice, leaving your beloved homeless.
5. Medical Power of Attorney and Living Will
A medical power of attorney is an advance healthcare directive that would give your spouse (or someone else) the immediate legal authority to make decisions about your healthcare and medical treatment should you become incapacitated and unable to make those decisions for yourself.
While a medical power of attorney allows your spouse to make healthcare decisions on your behalf during your incapacity, a living will is an advance directive that explains how you would want your medical care handled, particularly at the end of life. A medical power of attorney and a living will work closely together, and for this reason, they are sometimes combined into a single document.
Within the terms of your living will, you can spell out things, such as if and when you would want life support removed should you ever require it, whether you would want hydration and nutrition supplied, and even what kind of food you want and who can visit you in the hospital.
6. Name Legal Guardians For Your Minor Children
If either you or your spouse has minor children from a prior relationship, or if you are planning to have kids of your own soon, it is imperative that you select and legally document long-term guardians for your children. Guardians are people legally named to care for your children in the event something should happen to you and your spouse. You must name guardians in a legal document, or you risk creating needless conflict and a long, expensive court process for your loved ones.
Working with us, naming legal guardians for your kids could not be any easier or more convenient. Creating the legal documents that will ensure your children will be raised to adulthood by the people you trust most and are never placed in the care of strangers (even temporarily) is one of our specialties. And we accomplish this using our comprehensive system called the Kids Protection Plan®.
The Kids Protection Plan® provides you with all of the legal planning tools needed to make sure there is never a question about who will take care of your kids if you and your spouse are in an accident or suffer some other life-threatening emergency. Even if you have already named guardians for your kids in your will, either on your own or with the help of a lawyer, we often find that these plans contain at least one of six common mistakes that can leave your kids at risk.
A Trusted Advisor For Your New Family
Marriage is an exciting first step for your new family, and you should start things off right by getting your estate plan properly prepared. Like your family, your planning needs are constantly evolving, so you must ensure your plan is regularly updated as your assets, family situation, and the laws change. If you do not keep your plan updated, it will be totally worthless when your family needs it. In fact, failing to regularly update your plan can create problems that leave your family worse off than if you had never created a plan at all.
We have built-in systems and processes to ensure your plan is regularly reviewed and updated, so you do not need to worry about whether you have overlooked. What’s more, our planning services go far beyond simply creating documents and then never seeing you again. We will develop a relationship with you and your family. This is so we can get to know you, your wishes, and be there for you throughout the many stages of life—and above all, be there for your loved ones if and when you cannot be. Contact us today to get things started.
This article is a service of Ralston Law, a Personal Family Lawyer® Firm. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That's why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love.