Using Your Estate Plan to Provide for Your Partner If You Are Not Married

When you die without a will, trust or other estate plan, your assets generally will be distributed to your closest family members as prescribed by law, including a surviving spouse. But what if you’re one of the many people who have lived in committed relationships but for various reasons have not tied the knot?

For unmarried couples, there is no right of automatic inheritance, so you must take affirmative steps if you want to provide for your partner after death and to prevent state law from dictating where your assets go after you die. The best way to accomplish this goal is to have an estate plan in place. Most people think of a will as the central document of their estate planning. However, a revocable trust may be a better fit for families that don’t meet the default legal definitions of a “family” or “next of kin.”

A revocable trust is best thought of as an entity owned entirely by you for the benefit of anyone you specify. The trust holds any assets you wish to include — such as real estate, bank accounts and personal property — and sets rules and limitations on how those assets are to be managed and eventually distributed to the designated beneficiaries. You can serve as the trustee who manages the assets during your lifetime and name a successor trustee to take over should you pass away or become disabled. The successor trustee may be anyone in whom you repose confidence, including your partner.

A revocable trust gives you maximum control over the property it covers. You can manage the assets during your lifetime, alter the trust’s terms and revoke it entirely if you wish. Although a will can achieve many of the same aims, it has to be admitted to probate — a public court proceeding in which a legal heir or other interested party can contest the will or any of its dispositions. Your estate is locked up and prevented from being passed on to your loved ones until the court process is resolved.

By contrast, a revocable trust is administered privately. The successor trustee can act immediately to carry out your wishes without going to court. A disinherited heir seeking to challenge the trust must file a lawsuit alleging that you lacked legal capacity, which is difficult to prove since you managed the trust until death, or that someone exercised undue influence on you. The only assets subject to probate or intestate distribution are those not included in the trust and not jointly owned with a right of survivorship.

Estate planning attorney Valerie W. Epstein helps to account for long- and short-term concerns for families in the Chattanooga, Tennessee area. Call 423-265-5100 or contact us online. We provide free consultations and are available days, nights, weekends and holidays.


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