As I single man myself, I often wonder if it is really that important to have an estate plan. I don't have anyone to really give anything to, and what I do have is very limited. Does it really make sense for me to have an estate plan at this point in my life?
Yes! Having an estate plan, especially one drafted by an experienced estate planning attorney like me, Vince Taormina, may not seem crucial, but having a Will or Trust is a great way to express your wishes.
In some respects, estate planning for single people is a lot easier than for married couples. For one thing, there is a lot more flexibility in terms of beneficiaries. Most people who conduct estate planning generally have spouses, children, or grandchildren to give their assets to. In the case of a single person, he or she can give away their things to anyone, including charity!
There are two main issues to think about when planning the estate of a single individual: (1) Who to give your things to, and (2) What happens to me if I can no longer take care of myself during life?
Whether you are divorced, outlived your partner, or are no longer married, having a solid estate plan, one with appropriate documents like a Health Care Directive, Health Care Power of Attorney, or Durable Power of Attorney for Finances is incredibly important. Let's delve into these topics a little more.
Choosing Your Beneficiaries
If a single person fails to leave behind a Will or Trust after death, the courts will follow state law to determine what happens to your things. Dying without an estate plan, such as a Will or Trust, is called dying "Intestate."
For married couples, dying Intestate is relatively straightforward. In that scenario, the surviving spouse will receive at least 50% of the estate, and any children will equally split the remaining assets of the estate.
For single people, especially those without children, Intestacy is a little more complicated. In that scenario, state statute looks to the closest surviving relative of the Decedent (i.e., the dead person). Relatives in the first degree are looked at first. These include parents and siblings. If your parents are still living and you are an only child, your parents will receive your assets. If your parents are still living and you have brothers and sisters, then your parents and your siblings will each get an equal portion of your estate.
If, however, your parents are dead and you do not have siblings, then your grandparents (if they are still living), or your aunts and uncles (if your grandparents are not living), will receive your estate. We keep going up this ladder (known as the "Table of Consanguinity") until we find someone appropriate to take your estate. RSMo. § 474.010.
Most people do not want to die Intestate because their assets will not go to the person(s) they intend. Many single people may prefer to give their assets to their closest friends. Without an estate plan, this result is not possible since friends, even though they may act like your siblings, are not your blood relatives. To ensure this result, it is important to discuss your estate planning options with a proper estate planning attorney like me, Vince Taormina.
As a single person, you may also wish for your assets to be given to charity. This result is also not possible without an estate plan. No matter how charitable you were during your life, no court is going to donate all of your money to charity without written instruction from you during your life. Talking with an estate planning law firm like The Taormina Firm will help you arrange so that your assets are given to charity.
Clearly stating your intentions through a Will or Trust is therefore really important. You do not want the government deciding what happens to your things. You should be in the driver's seat, not the government.
Powers of Attorney
As a single person, I often fear about what might happen to me if I cannot take care of myself. If I become incapacitated, the state will likely appoint a guardian or conservator to take care of my physical well-being and my assets. This could potentially be devastating, as I would no longer retain any of my individual rights. The state will literally control everything about my life.
Having a couple of different Powers of Attorney, therefore, would resolve this issue.
A Power of Attorney is a written document granting another person the right to make decisions on my behalf. There are a couple of different ways in which a Power of Attorney becomes effective in Missouri. First, a Power of Attorney could be effective immediately upon signing, meaning you give someone else the right to make decisions for your presently. The second, and most common, is a "springing Power of Attorney." The Power of Attorney "springs" into action upon your incapacity (as certified by a court or a medical professional), and the person you designate as your Attorney in Fact can only act on your behalf upon your incapacity.
There are a couple of different types of Powers of Attorney that I want to discuss: Health Care Power of Attorney and Durable General Power of Attorney.
- Health Care Power of Attorney
A Health Care Power of Attorney names someone else to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. If you are incapacitated for any reason, and unable to communicate for yourself, your pre-designated Attorney in Fact (i.e., the person who acts for you) will make healthcare decisions for you.
In your Health Care Power of Attorney, you will specifically outline which decisions your Attorney in Fact can make for you. They cannot act without your permission. These actions may include arranging medical care, authorizing HIPAA disclosures, or allowing the withdrawal of care at the end of your life. This document is also where you may authorize your Attorney in Fact to donate your organs.
A Health Care Power of Attorney is a very useful tool for single people. If you cannot communicate for yourself, you need someone else to make medical decisions for you. Think long and hard, with consultation from an estate planning professional like me, about who you wish to make such decisions. This should not be taken lightly. Some people are more equipped to take these actions than others.
- Durable General Power of Attorney
Another important document is a Durable General Power of Attorney. This type of Power of Attorney allows your Attorney in Fact to deal with all other issues which may arise after you are unable to communicate for yourself. This includes dealing with bank accounts, selling real estate, continuing your business interests, creating estate planning documents on your behalf, moving you into an assisted living facility, taking care of your pets, signing documents, and arranging help from other professionals like a financial advisor or an attorney.
Again, this will likely only take effect upon your incapacity, so it is important to think about which of your friends or family members is most responsible in taking care of your financial and personal needs. They will be required to pay your bills and conduct other affairs on your behalf, so they should be someone you consider responsible. Discussing your options with an estate planning law firm, like The Taormina Firm, is really important.
Health Care Directive
Another important document for single individuals is a Health Care Directive. A Health Care Directive states whether or not you wish for medical care and treatment to be continued or withdrawn in the event that you are dying or in a vegetative state.
Your Health Care Directive directs medical professionals, family members, and friends as to your end-of-life care. Many people do not wish to remain on life support, they instead opt to "pull the plug" in the event of their severe incapacity or if they are nearing death.
By specifically stating what you wish to happen to you in the event of incapacity or permanent unconsciousness, you are advising those in your life as to your care. This is an important decision which should not be taken lightly. It can be extremely emotional when thinking about the end of your life. That is why discussing your options with an estate planning attorney who cares about you and your well-being, and one that tries to bring some levity to such a dark topic, is important.
Take Action Now
So what are we single people to do? Should we wait around until the last minute, or should we take the necessary steps to arrange our estates and plan for the future? As an estate planning attorney, I believe strongly in the latter, not just because I have an interest in helping plan these documents, but because I have seen how catastrophic not having these documents can be.
Most of us do not expect to become incapacitated in the near future. Incapacity and death are far-off concepts. Planning for them does not seem like an urgency. But, as we know from this past year, anything can happen. We live in an unpredictable world. Being unprepared for possible incapacity can have devastating consequences, especially for single people.
With that said, here are a couple of things for us single people to consider when beginning to think about estate planning:
- If something unexpected happens to you, your loved ones may be tasked with managing critical decisions on your behalf. They may not know what you desire, and they may feel uncomfortable making those decisions without knowing. Having a Health Care Directive and Powers of Attorney can assuage any concerns they may have, and give them peace of mind knowing that they are following your wishes.
- If you have minor children, the court will appoint guardians for them if you do not have proper estate planning documents prepared by an estate planning attorney like me, Vince Taormina. You want control over your children; expressing such control is essential.
- If you have people who depend on you to financially support them, without an estate plan your assets will be unavailable to them until your estate is sorted out by the courts.
- Your assets will likely go to beneficiaries you might not otherwise want to receive your assets. Proper planning with an estate planning professional can prevent this result.
- You could lose ability to control yourself and your assets if you become incapacitated. Having a proper estate plan is the only way in which you can prevent having a guardian or conservator appointed for you; it is essential for maintaining your dignity and your rights.
Update Your Wishes
Things change throughout the course of your life. If you are like me, you may not plan to be single forever. Even if you create these documents while you are single, you can absolutely update them or get rid of them as your relationship status changes. You are not tied down by your estate plan.
And even if you wish to remain single, over the course of your life your beneficiaries may change. Friends come in and out of your life. Those you originally name as beneficiaries or Attorneys in Fact may not be in your life anymore. You may wish to update those documents to take into account those changes.
Remember, nothing in estate planning is set in stone. As an estate planning attorney, I discuss my clients' estate plans at least annually to see what, if any, changes there have been in their life. Working with an estate planning law firm like The Taormina Firm will thus help you keep track of those changes.
Although estate planning is easy to put off, especially for people in our boat, nothing could be more important. Planning now can ensure that your intentions, and your own personal care and support, are properly arranged and taken care of.
If you wish to talk to an estate planning attorney who can relate to you, feel free to give me, Vince Taormina, a call at any time to figure out what the best course of action is. I am more than happy to discuss your legal rights at any time.