Important estate planning considerations for non-traditional families

There is no doubt that the family structure of households in the United States has changed over the years. The latest census report shows that married couples make up less than 50 percent of all American households. Singles, same-sex couples and unmarried partners now comprise a majority of the nation's family units. Your estate plan should reflect the needs of you and your family. With the structure of families becoming more diverse, it is critical that estate plans be tailored to reflect that diversity. The estate planning needs of single individuals can also be complex and diverse.

The U.S. is experiencing numerous changes in laws regarding same-sex marriage and benefit rights for unmarried partners. Although Michigan does not currently allow same-sex marriage or benefits for domestic partners of those employed by public employers, many such couples live in our state.

Michigan law does not give the same priority to an unmarried couple as it does to traditional married couples. This affects medical treatment and end-of-life decisions as well as the right to handle financial matters during an individual's lifetime. he law does not protect the inheritance rights of unmarried partners, or others in so-called "non-traditional" families. The law is focused on the rights of "blood relatives." Because of this, it is critical to establish estate plans that will provide for unmarried partners and others in non-traditional relationships in the event of a death or serious illness.

A need for estate planning

Each individual, family and household has its own financial concerns and needs. Partners want their loved ones to have certain rights and access to assets if something should happen to them or alter their abilities to provide for their families. If you want to make sure of who will make medical or financial decisions for you if you become incapacitated, it is important to have documents such as:

  • Durable powers of attorney for financial matters
  • Medical powers of attorney - also known as a health care directives or Designations of Patient Advocate
  • Trusts
  • If you have children, are caring for elderly parents, want to provide for the people you love or distribute property to charities after your death, it is important to have documents such as a:
  • Last will and testaments
  • Trusts

These basic documents can provide your partner or other person you choose with the rights to make decisions on your behalf if you suffer an injury and can no longer make your own financial or medical decisions.

A will - which goes into effect only upon your death - can designate who is entitled to your personal and real property. Failure to have a will in place means that the intestacy laws of your state determine who gets your estate, leaving a non-married partner out of the loop. A trust can be used to manage your assets during your lifetime and control who receives your property after your death.

Special considerations

Unmarried individuals and unmarried partners have a heightened need for estate planning as Michigan law does not provide for same-sex or unmarried partners. Many may wish to create domestic partnership or other types of agreements to structure how a primary residence or vacation home is managed. There are also numerous tax consequences that differ from "traditional" married couples. Special attention may be necessary to secure the rights of your loved ones if you have any of the following:

  • Real estate
  • Retirement plans such as a 401(k) or IRA
  • Investments
  • Life or disability insurance
  • Step-children, adopted children or a family member with a disability
  • Ownership in a business

Seek legal help

The list of special considerations is not exhaustive. If you have questions regarding your estate, probate, guardianship of your children or business succession options, seek the counsel of an experienced estate planning attorney. A knowledgeable lawyer can help you decide how best to provide for your family in the future.