Comprehensive Planning. Lifelong Solutions.

Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples

By Emily Martin, Esq.

In recent years, the percentage of couples getting married has declined, and those who do get married, are getting married later. In fact, according to the Current Population Survey from the Pew Research Center in 2017, the median age at first marriage reached its highest point on record at 30 years for men and 28 years for women. Additionally, it has become more and more common for couples to live together before getting married – or to live together without getting married at all. In 2016, 18 million adults were living with an unmarried partner – a 29 percent increase from 2007. With the marriage rate declining, it has become more important for unmarried couples to plan for the future. Who will receive your assets after you pass away? And perhaps even more importantly, who will have the right to make decisions for you if you cannot make them on your own? All unmarried couples in a long-term relationship should address these difficult issues.

The first issue to consider is how your assets will pass after you pass away, and who will have the responsibility of managing your affairs after your death. If you do not have a will, then the laws of intestate succession for your state will determine who receives your assets upon your death. In Virginia, if you are unmarried, the default law states that children receive your assets first. If you do not have any children or grandchildren, then your parents (if they are living) will inherit everything, followed down the line by siblings, nieces and nephews.

If you are in a long-term relationship, chances are you would like for your partner to receive some or all of your assets upon your death. A will or a trust is one way to ensure that your assets pass the way you want them to. In these documents, you can designate that your partner receive a portion of your assets (or all of them, if you prefer). You can also name your partner as your executor or trustee, which gives them the authority to pay your debts, collect your assets, and manage your affairs after you die.

Another way to make sure that the right people receive your assets after your death is through beneficiary designations and “transfer on death” designations. If you have retirement accounts, annuities, or life insurance policies, it is important to keep the beneficiary designations on these accounts updated. These types of accounts typically allow you to name one or more primary beneficiaries as well as contingent beneficiaries who would only receive the assets if the primary beneficiaries were deceased. Because assets with beneficiary designations typically pass outside of probate, adding these designations to your accounts is one important way to avoid your estate having to go through the probate process after your death. Additionally, you can add “payable on death” or “transfer on death” designations to your bank accounts. Some states, including Virginia, even allow you to complete a “transfer on death” deed for your real property. This deed, which takes effect only after you die, allows you to designate one or more people who will receive your real property upon your death.

While many people are focused on what will happen after they die, they often forget to focus on what will happen if they don’t die, but instead become incapacitated and cannot manage their own affairs. A well-rounded, comprehensive estate plan answers both questions. It is important to make sure that your wishes regarding what will happen if you become incapacitated are well-documented. If you do not complete a financial or healthcare power of attorney, your partner could be forced to file for guardianship and conservatorship to be granted the authority to manage your affairs. This is a costly court process that often involves conflict between family members and other loved ones. If you wish for your partner to be able to make financial and medical decisions for you upon your incapacity, you need to sign a financial power of attorney as well as a healthcare power of attorney. Having these documents in place can help save a great deal of heartache and money if you become unable to manage your own affairs.

Although it is not a pleasant topic, estate planning is a very important one. It is a good idea to review your plan frequently (every three to five years, or more often if you have had a change in circumstances) and adjust it accordingly. If you and your partner part ways, if you have children, or if you find yourself in a new relationship, your documents may need to be updated to reflect that change. As always, having an open and honest dialogue with your partner about your wishes and letting them know that you have named them in your estate planning documents is crucial.

Although unmarried couples can face unique struggles when it comes to planning for incapacity and death, a little advance planning can allow you to make your wishes known while giving your partner the authority they need to handle your affairs if you are unable to do so.

Ask Kit Kat: Dog-Cat Stories

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, do you have some feel-good animal stories for us?

Kit Kat: Yes, I do! One is about a dog, and one is about a cat. First, let me tell you about Kylie, the German shepherd, who is a trained cadaver dog. Kylie works with the District of Columbia’s fire department, and she is one of 4 such dogs which work with that fire department. She was severely injured in July when she stepped on a hidden fence along the Arlington-Alexandria (Virginia) border. She actually became impaled on the fence, causing her to bleed profusely. She was then taken by medevac helicopter to an animal hospital in Northwest Washington for treatment. She needed several surgeries in order to recover. But recover she did. The bones she helped uncover that day (July 19) are still under investigation. The five-year old shepherd is a marvel and essential member of that cadaver team!

Now let’s switch to our cat story. Tissy, is a Maine Coon cat, orange in color. Their hair is longer than the typical domestic shorthair cat. Maine Coon cats are also quite large and can weigh between 8-11 lbs. for a female and 13-18 lbs for a male. Tissy is unusual, though not really unique, because she loves water. She was adopted by a family in western Pennsylvania, who found her as a kitten, in a parking lot near the county fair. When Tissy was about a year old, her family discovered she loves to swim. So Tissy now wears a floatie around her middle, which lengthens the time she can stay in the water. The family also reports she loves bubble baths, so her swimming is not limited to summertime only. Who would have ever thought a cat would actually enjoy swimming? Wonders never cease. (Dana Hedgpeth & Associated Press, “D.C. cadaver dog impaled on the job returns to work; Pennsylvania cat dives in summer with love of swimming,” The Virginian-Pilot, August 3, 2019, p. 11)

Posted on Thursday, August 8th, 2019. Filed under Senior Law News.

Is Diet the Fountain of Youth?

By Letha Sgritta McDowell, CELA

Did you know that diet may be the best way to fight aging? The benefits of diet and exercise have long been touted as beneficial, and we hear about obesity leading to chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes which ultimately leads to an early death. However, beyond simply improving looks and living longer, studies are now showing that a healthy diet may be the secret to anti-aging.

As we age our bodies change. Not simply in looks but in function as well. For example, thirst sensation decreases with age which means a person feels less thirsty. The result may be a failure to drink enough water. It also takes longer to digest a meal as a person ages and the ability to taste can be reduced which may lead to being disinterested in eating. Because our bodies change as we age, our diet needs to adapt as well. The diet we had in our 20s and 30s may simply not work anymore.

One key to a healthy diet (at any age) is water, but it becomes more important as an individual ages and in improving the aging process. As mentioned above, the sensation of being thirsty reduces as a person ages so older adults are more likely to be dehydrated. Not only does that affect organ function but our looks as well. Being dehydrated can exacerbate the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Blueberries are extremely high in anti-oxidants, not to mention low in calories. Anti-oxidants are important, because they neutralize free radicals which exist in our bodies. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can attack cells, and they have been linked to diseases such as cancer. Recently, research has shown that an appropriate diet can help slow cognitive impairment that comes with dementia, and it is believed that blueberries and other foods high in anti-oxidants play a significant part in that.

Walnuts are high in phytochemicals such as polyunsaturated fatty acids which reduce pressure on the brain. Studies are also showing that consuming walnuts helps increase brain activity and slows cognitive decline, making walnuts a true brain food.

Believe it or not, watercress is an excellent food to add to a diet to reduce the signs of aging. Watercress contains potassium, calcium, manganese, phosphorus and a host of vitamins. Included in these are anti-oxidants which are discussed above, as well as compounds which increase circulation, improve the delivery of minerals to cells, and reduce basal DNA damage. Therefore, watercress may help prevent cancer and helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Papaya has a number of important vitamins and eating papaya has been shown to improve skin elasticity. It also contains an enzyme called papain which is a known anti-inflammatory and exfoliant. So, eating papaya can help shed dead cells and leave you with glowing skin.

This is a short list of foods which are beneficial to our bodies at any age but which can provide even more pronounced benefits as we age. There are many other foods which could be listed that can reduce cell damage, prevent heart disease, slow memory loss, and help us look younger. Many of us are unaware of how our bodies change as we age and that modifications to our diet can aid us in looking and feeling great well into old age.

Ask Kit Kat: NC Animal Shelters Well-Prepared

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about how the animal shelters in North Carolina are some of the best prepared in the country for emergencies like flooding or hurricanes?

Kit Kat: Well, yes, North Carolina does seem to have developed a great system for the organization and storage of supplies to keep pets and humans together during storms which result in large evacuations or sheltering. In fact, according to Wendy Pulley, interim human services branch manager of the NC Division of Emergency Management, “North Carolina has become the gold standard for pet shelters.” What is unique to North Carolina is that people and pets can stay together in the same shelters in the majority of cases. North Carolina, in essence, has pre-prepared trailers of pet supplies which can be unpacked should the situation require it. In the trailers are animal crates in folded condition, large rolls of plastic sheeting which can wrap an entire room or hallway to maintain sanitary conditions, leashes, food, etc. Very quickly a shelter can be established, and cleanup is a snap.

North Carolina, after Hurricane Katrina, took seriously the law enacted by Congress, that all states have evacuation plans for animals. In North Carolina, that meant mandating that every county have a plan for the evacuation of animals. About half of North Carolina’s 100 counties have purchased the trailers with animal supplies. Trailers with equipment-only cost $16,000. Those with air conditioning and which are self-contained units cost $35,000.  In some cases, other systems were already in place which met the law’s requirements. For example, counties on the coast like Dare and Currituck, have vehicles to move the animals inland to areas/shelters not so vulnerable to flooding. Pets are checked in by trained volunteers, and each pets gets an ID attached to its collar or crate. The goal is to eliminate the need for people to make a choice between evacuating and leaving their pets behind to fend for themselves. North Carolina has done a wonderful job in helping both people and their pets. (Jeff Hampton, “N.C. Shelters come with everything needed to save animals during storms,” The Virginian-Pilot, July 27, 2019, p. 3)

Posted on Monday, August 5th, 2019. Filed under Senior Law News.
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Ask Kit Kat: Pet advice and wisdom as Kit Kat sees it.