A Guide to Single-Person Estate Planning
- Estate planning is important for everyone, including singles. Learn the basics of single-person estate planning, including wills, trusts and healthcare proxies.
If you’re unmarried and don’t have children, you may think you won’t have to worry about what happens to your estate after you die. However, estate planning is an important part of aging, even if you’re single, and it can involve more than just a plan to distribute your assets. Besides creating a legacy, single-person estate planning can help you define your financial and medical preferences should you become incapacitated, including your end-of-life wishes. It can also bring a unique set of challenges. Here’s what you should know.
Why Should Singles Create a Will?
A last will and testament isn’t just for married couples or those who have dependents, and there are several compelling reasons for singles to create a will:
- Property distribution: By drawing up a will, singles can leave specific instructions for the distribution of their belongings. Besides ensuring their hard-earned assets don’t end up as property of the state, a will can define who should receive sentimental objects and family heirlooms.
- Debt resolution: A will can define how debts are handled after you die, so you don’t saddle someone else with what you owe. This is particularly important if you have cosigned loans or are a partner in a business.
- Pet care: By drawing up a will, you can prepare for the future of beloved pets. Besides naming someone you trust as a guardian, you can also earmark money for a pet's care and comfort.
Wills not only have practical applications. They're also simple and inexpensive to create. Singles who want to draw up a will may do so through an attorney or by using DIY templates found online. Although laws may vary by state, most wills are enforceable if they're signed, notarized and filed with your state's probate court. Some states may also require witnesses who don't have a financial stake in the estate.
Who Should You Name as a Beneficiary?
Legally, you may name any adult or organization as a beneficiary in your will, and wills may contain multiple beneficiaries. Heirs may include family members, friends, colleagues, employees and other valued individuals. You may also name an organization or institution, such as a charity, that’s meaningful to you.
Naming Minor Children in a Will
If you wish to leave money or property to a minor, you’ll typically need to put the assets into a trust, which is a fiduciary arrangement that lets a third party, known as a trustee, hold assets on behalf of the minor. Once the minor reaches the age of 18, they may access the assets you’ve willed to them.
Leaving Money to Pets
You can’t bequeath money or assets directly to a pet. However, you may set up a provision in your will that earmarks money for the care of your pets. To do so, you’ll need to name a guardian, who will be entrusted with the care of your pet after your death. This caretaker receives any money allocated to care for your pet and must use these funds accordingly.
Donating to Charity
Donations are the lifeblood of most charities, and you can support a cause that’s meaningful to you by naming a charitable or nonprofit organization, such as a church or animal rescue group, as a beneficiary. In many cases, you can even specify what your donation should be used for.
However, because you’ll typically need the full legal name of the charity and its tax identification number, it’s often helpful to contact the charity before you draw up your will. Additionally, if you’re planning on bequeathing real estate or other property, make sure the charity is able to accept this type of donation.
Should You Consider Setting Up a Trust?
Another viable way to leave an inheritance is through a trust, which lets a third party hold assets on behalf of a beneficiary. By placing assets in a trust, you may be able to bypass probate, so your beneficiaries can get their inheritance faster. You may also want to consider setting up a trust if:
- You have a high net worth.
- You want to minimize estate taxes.
- You want to protect your estate from beneficiaries’ creditors.
- You want to set aside money to care for a pet.
- You want greater flexibility and control over asset distribution.
- You want to define specific parameters for the use of an inheritance.
However, because rules governing trusts can vary by state, it’s important to work with a knowledgeable estate planning attorney when setting up these fiduciary arrangements.
Prioritizing Estate Planning Documents That Don’t Involve Asset Distribution
Estate planning isn't just about what happens to your assets after you die. It can also involve legal documents that determine what happens and who can make decisions if you become incapacitated. This may include living wills, DNRs, healthcare proxy and power of attorney.
A living will provides explicit instructions for emergency or end-of-life care if you’re incapacitated and unable to communicate your wishes. This may include decisions about potentially life-saving or life-prolonging treatments, such as CPR, ventilator use, IV fluids and tube feeding. By setting up a living will, you can specify your choices regarding how these crucial medical treatments are carried out, rather than leaving decisions to grieving relatives.
Do Not Resuscitate Orders
If your heart stops or your heartbeat is unsustainable, a DNR instructs hospital and nursing facility medical staff not to use life-saving CPR or other artificial means to restart it. You may also opt to draw up the following similar legal documents:
- DNAR (do not attempt resuscitation) order
- AND (allow natural death) order
- DNI (do not intubate) order
- DNRCC (do not resuscitate — comfort care) order
Power of Attorney
Creating a power of attorney document lets you grant someone you trust the ability to make legal and financial decisions if you can't. Although most people name a relative, close friend or romantic partner in this role, you can also designate a nurse advocate or an attorney who understands and is willing to carry out your wishes. When creating this document, you may grant someone a general power of attorney, which lets them make decisions on your behalf at any time, or you may specify limits to the POA’s legal responsibilities.
When you designate a healthcare proxy, you’re essentially granting someone medical power of attorney. The person you name should be someone who is willing to respect your wishes regarding medical care and treatment. If you designate a healthcare proxy, be sure they know if you have a living will, DNR or similar medical order.
Handling the Challenges of Single-Person Estate Planning
Single-person estate planning often involves unique challenges due to changing relationships, and it may need to account for complicated situations such as prior marriages, stepchildren and current romantic involvements. Fortunately, with the help of an estate planning lawyer, your will and other legal documents may be adjusted as your circumstances change. That’s why it’s important to regularly assess your estate planning documents for accuracy and to make adjustments that reflect life changes, such as marriage, children or updated romantic partnerships.