While estate planning for couples with no children seems like it would be very simple, the opposite is almost always the case.
If there’s no plan in place, intestate succession laws dictate who will receive property.
There are three relatively simple ways for couples to be sure their wishes will be followed, and property distributed as they want.
A secondary level of beneficiaries. Couples don’t always die at the same time, although it does happen. For the most part, upon one spouse’s death, assets owned together, including Payable on Death, or POD accounts, remain in the possession of the surviving spouse. If all of the assets are owned jointly, the surviving spouse may be able to avoid probate altogether. In this case the problem arises after the surviving spouse dies.
There should be provisions in the last will, in case of a simultaneous death. This lets the more important provisions focus on the beneficiaries. While property may pass easily outside of probate to the survivor, the same will not be true if property is to pass to beneficiaries. The estate will go through probate.
If at all possible, couples should have the same designated beneficiaries. If the couple intends to leave everything to the surviving spouse, they will need to decide who will receive joint property after both have died.
Last wills for each spouse must be created to work together. Designating separate lists of beneficiaries in each spouse’s last will and testament ultimately results in the marital property being left only to one spouse’s loved ones. The result: the other spouse’s family can end up being disinherited.
One way to address this is to create marital shares of property. Couples generally divide marital property in equal shares, although couples in blended families may choose to use a different fractional share.
For each fractional share, each spouse should write out their own list of beneficiaries, being sure that the total ends up being 100%.
Another point to be determined: will survivors within the group receive a larger share pro rata, or will children of the deceased beneficiaries receive their shares? This needs to be clarified when the estate plan is created to avoid potential problems for beneficiaries.
Beneficiaries could potentially be changed after the death of the first spouse, so if the couple wants to prevent anyone from being disinherited, they can use a revocable living trust. This can lock up the deceased spouse’s shares in a manner to allow the property to remain available for the survivor, but the survivor cannot change beneficiaries for the deceased spouse’s share.
Estate planning for couples with no children can have its own pitfalls, so consult with an experienced estate planning attorney, who will know how to protect all members of the family.
Reference: The News-Enterprise (July 27, 2021) “Three keys to estate planning for couples without children”
Suggested Key Terms: Last Will and Testament, Estate Planning Attorney, Beneficiaries, Surviving Spouse, Revocable Living Trust, Payable on Death, Deceased Spouse, Probate, Simultaneous Death, Marital Property, Fractional Share, Revocable Living Trust