If you are unmarried and don’t have children you may think that “estate planning” is unnecessary for you. You may believe that estate planning is only a concern for married couples or people with children or people who are very wealthy. But this is not true. Unmarried individuals of modest means can benefit from forethought and preparation for the future – a future that someday may involve their incapacity and will certainly include their death.
Estate planning is not limited to having a will that directs that upon your death the things that you own pass to the right people. That is just part of it. Effective estate planning actually entails much more than having a will and planning for your death.
Estate planning also involves planning for your possible future incapacity – a world in which you are alive but need help. It’s about protecting your own interests while you are alive. It’s about making sure that if you have an accident or sudden illness, someone will be able to pay your bills, care for your pet, and do all the other things that need to get done.
Legal tools like trusts and powers of attorney and health care directives can help you retain control over your affairs in the event of your temporary or permanent incapacity. You can plan in advance so that the decisions that will be made for you will be the ones you want made, and the people making the decisions will be the people you choose.
Although you may not be aware of it, you already have an estate plan – because the government has prepared one for you. The government plan is your default – it governs what happens if you don’t take the time to plan for yourself. Here is what the government default plan does:
- It says who is authorized to make health care decisions for you if you get sick and can’t make your own. It also specifies the kinds of decisions this “representative” can make on your behalf. The authority granted to your representative under Pennsylvania law is very broad. If you don’t want that family member who never liked you to have the authority to “pull your plug” you should probably take the time to create a health care power of attorney.
- The Government plan says that a court will decide who will be given authority to handle your financial affairs if you are no longer able to manage on your own. A Judge will decide, based on limited facts, perhaps after a court hearing that lasts only a few minutes, to turn all your finances over to someone who you may not even know. If you don’t want to leave your financial fate to a Judge and appointed guardian, you should take the time to create a financial power of attorney. Your financial power of attorney document will authorize the person you choose to step in for you and it will state the amount of authority they will have, and won’t have.
- Your Government plan says who will be in charge of distributing your money, property, and personal belongings when you die. It also sets up a default list of people who will get your stuff. If you are unmarried and have no children, this can get very complicated and confusing, and people who you didn’t like (and perhaps didn’t even know) can wind up with your money, property, and special personal items. If this doesn’t sound good to you, you need to take the time to create your own Will.
If you are unmarried you can stick with your government default estate plan or you can opt out of it and create your own. But, unless you can figure out how to live forever and in good health, your estate plan is likely to someday become very important.
The Marshall, Parker and Weber website has a number of articles that can give you more information on financial powers of attorney and health care directives. Of course, these documents are too important to your future to be “do it yourself.” See an experienced elder law and estate planning lawyer to make sure you get things right.