Friday, June 26, 2009

Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples

Chances are quite good that you might know of a couple who are living together without the benefit of marriage. The U.S. Census Bureau confirms what you already may suspect. More people are cohabitating in lieu of marriage these days than ever before in our nation’s history. In 1930, married couples accounted for 84 percent of American households. In the year 2000, just 70 years later, married couples were barely in the majority at 52 percent. The trend does not seem to have bottomed-out, either. In 2005, married couples were the minority at 49.7 percent. And, it is not just young couples. In fact, between 2001 and 2006, the number of unmarried cohabitants older than age 55 rose 61 percent, from 340,000 to 549,000. Even though cohabitation is legal in the majority of states, unmarried cohabitants face unique estate planning challenges regarding incapacity, inheritance, and estate taxation.

So who in charge when someone becomes “incapacitated”?

Unlike their married counterparts, unmarried cohabitants may not be able to make fundamental health and financial decisions for one another in the event of incapacity. Absent prior legal planning or specific statutory authority, unmarried couples have no legal relationship to give standing in court over one’s blood relatives. For example Jim and Mary are unmarried cohabitants when a severe automobile accident leaves Mary in a coma. If both Jim and Mary’s parents seek to be appointed as Mary’s legal guardian, then the preference will be for Mary’s parents. In addition, if Mary’s parents do not like Jim, they may legally bar Jim from visiting her. Mary’s parents would even have the authority to make end-of-life decisions without Jim’s input. Similarly, Jim would not be able to manage Mary’s finances. Her parents likely would be appointed as conservator over her financial affairs, paying her bills and filing her taxes, too.

Protecting Your Partner's Inheritance

Absent proper legal planning, state intestate succession laws (i.e., state laws that determine the distribution of assets of a person who dies without a will) may leave the surviving cohabitant on the street. For example, Jane and John reside in a home titled in Jane’s name alone. If Jane dies, then her parents inherit the home and may force John to leave as a trespasser. If Jane and John had children together, then the children would inherit the home, not Jane’s parents. But what if the children were minors? As the surviving parent, John would be responsible for maintaining the home for the children, or selling it on behalf of the children. When the children reach the age of majority (i.e., age 18 in most states), John will be required to turn the home or the proceeds from its sale over to the children without any further guidance or control.

Unmarried Couples Lose the Unlimited Marital Deduction for Estate Taxes

The unlimited marital deduction is an unlimited deduction for estate (and gift) tax purposes, but only for transfers between married spouses of the opposite sex. For example, Jane’s estate is worth $7 million, chiefly consisting of an IRA and a life insurance policy designating John as the beneficiary. Upon her death, only $3.5 million of the IRA and life insurance proceeds will be sheltered from federal estate taxes. What about the remaining $3.5 million? Jane’s estate will have to shell out more than $1.5 million in federal estate taxes (plus income taxes on any IRA funds withdrawn to pay these federal estate taxes) to the Internal Revenue Service within nine months of Jane’s death.
Contrast this result with Pete and Barbara who are married and who live next door in the cul-de-sac. Assume they present the same facts. Pete will inherit Barbara’s full $7 million of assets without any reduction due to federal estate taxes. The Federal Tax Code laws grant to Pete an unlimited marital deduction. This allows married spouses of the opposite sex to gift during life or leave to one another upon death an unlimited amount of assets free of gift or estate taxation.
Couples who elect to cohabitate should consider seeking qualified legal counsel to minimize or eliminate these adverse results.

No comments:

Post a Comment