Estate planning is a very personal process. If you’re childless, it’s actually much more important to have an estate plan than you might realize. When a person has no children or close relatives (other than perhaps a spouse), the decisions needed to create an estate plan can be overwhelming. Kiplinger’s recent article, “No Children? Why You Still Need an Estate Plan,” provides some ideas:
Incapacity Planning Documents
Everyone should have an advance healthcare directive and a durable power of attorney for legal and financial decisions. After all, these documents are about you; they let you decide who will be in charge of your medical and legal affairs in the event you are no longer able to do so yourself. If you become incapacitated without these documents, you may become subject to a conservatorship proceeding where a judge appoints someone (who you may or may not know) to make these decisions for you.
Living Trusts (or at least a Will)
A living trust is a legal document that can be used to manage many of your assets during your life and act as a substitute for your will when you die, giving you control over who will receive your assets when you pass on. A trust has two big advantages: it helps avoid probate (think court hearings and notices to remote relatives about your property) at your death and allows you to distribute your assets privately and at minimal cost and with little delay. Having a trust also helps with incapacity (even better than with the power of attorney document above) in that the trust document designates who can manage the property in your trust if you can’t do so yourself while you are still alive. When childless singles or couples die without a trust and have only a will, but no living trust, it offers no help if incapacity strikes, and a probate may be required at death, inviting in remote relatives that a person may not even have a relationship with in the event they want to contest the will. Worse yet, if a childless person dies without even having a will, those remote relatives could actually inherit your assets (as determined by the state intestacy laws). The best way to avoid these issues is to create a trust, which remains private and is inherently more difficult to challenge that a will.
For more information about whether a trust is right for you, check out this article.
Deciding What to Do with Your Assets
This can be a tough decision. In my experience, when no children are involved, nieces and nephews are often named as beneficiaries, as well as cousins and siblings. Many also name friends, pets and charities (more on that below) or any combination of the above. Talk to your estate planning attorney to review the best way to leave your assets so that distant family members with whom you may have no real relationship (and who might otherwise inherit from you under state intestacy laws) will have difficulty contesting your decisions.
These can also be included in your estate plan. If the charitable gift is sizable, you may wish to contact the charity beforehand to be certain your gift is used in the way that makes you most comfortable (which you can then spell out in the terms of your trust or will). You may also wish to consider making charitable gifts from retirement accounts such as a 401(k) or IRA, since the charity will not have to pay income tax on that gift like a natural person would.
Your estate plan can also help establish who will take care of your pets when you’re no longer here. You can leave the pet and some money to a trusted friend or family member, or you can create a formal pet trust to provide for your pet. Either way, include important pets in your plan so they can be properly cared for if you are no longer able to do so.
When it comes to estate planning, you ultimately get to decide who will inherit your assets – but only if you take action. To be certain your wishes are executed as you intend, it is critical to have the proper planning in place to avoid probate and allow for an efficient transfer of our assets consistent with your values.
Reference: Kiplinger (February 11, 2019) “No Children? Why You Still Need an Estate Plan”