Estate Planning for Married Couples
Planning The Next Chapter
You and your fiancé just spent the last year of your lives planning your dream wedding. And to your delight, the big event went off without a hitch. The food, the flowers, the first kiss … everything was perfect. You are now married. But have you actually thought about what being married means? Have you thought about how you will honor your wedding vows and be there for your spouse in sickness and in health?
Not surprisingly, very few married couples – whether they are newlyweds or celebrating sixty years of marriage – realize the importance of estate planning. However, every married couple needs some form of estate planning arrangement to protect and provide for their spouse – in sickness and in health.
Without prior planning, disability due to an illness or injury can cause needless legal and financial challenges in a marriage. Fortunately, a little preventive “maintenance” now could help avoid disaster later on down the road. In this article, we review some of the most essential preventive measures to help you honor your wedding vows.
Estate Planning for Legal Challenges
Most married couples have the mistaken belief that they can make personal, health care and financial decisions for one another should either spouse become disabled. But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Every adult American citizen is responsible for making his or her own personal, health care and financial decisions. Accordingly, if one spouse is legally disabled, then the other spouse will not automatically have access to the disabled spouse’s medical information, bank accounts, retirement plans, etc. In fact, the healthy spouse will not even be able to file a joint income tax return for the couple.
Unless you have already legally appointed your spouse to be your Agent to make your decisions in the event of your disability, then decisions regarding your personal, health care and financial affairs will come to a screeching halt! You and your spouse will find yourselves involuntary participants in the Lawyer Full-Employment Program of the Probate Court.
When forced to participate in the Lawyer Full-Employment Program, the non-disabled spouse must first hire an attorney to bring suit declaring the other spouse as legally disabled and request that the Probate Court give the non-disabled spouse legal authority to act on behalf of the disabled spouse. The Probate Judge must then appoint a different lawyer to represent the disabled spouse against the petitioning spouse. Eventually, after considerable red tape, expense and disclosure of private matters (i.e., personal, health care and financial), the Probate Judge will most likely appoint the non-disabled spouse as the Guardian over personal and health care matters, and as Conservator over financial matters.
Fortunately, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to avoiding the Lawyer Full-Employment Program. If you are at least 18 years old and married, then you need to legally appoint your spouse to make your personal, health care and financial decisions. The necessary legal documents include Advance Health Directives (e.g., Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care Decisions/Health Care Treatment Directive/Health Care Proxy/Living Will) and a Durable Power of Attorney for Financial Matters.