First comes love, then comes marriage -- but then should come a few estate planning essentials. Once the ink on the marriage license is dry, your newlywed clients -- or perhaps your clients' newly married children -- should make a series of moves to protect both themselves and their finances.
One note: Although clients may marry (or remarry) at any age, I'm going to focus here on advice for young, first-time married couples who are starting their financial lives together.
For them in particular, its important to take the following actions.
1. VISIT THE HR DEPARTMENT
For most young adults, their employer manages both their life insurance and retirement accounts. Therefore, advise newlywed clients to visit the human resources department (either in person or through the company's intranet site) to update beneficiary designations for both life insurance and retirement accounts with the name of their new spouse.
Unfortunately, I have seen instances where a newlywed's unexpected death becomes even more tragic when the widow or widower discovers that the late spouse's parents are still named as a life insurance beneficiaries.
A simple change to the beneficiary designation form could have prevented that outcome. While workplace retirement accounts are typically governed by federal ERISA law, which requires a spouse be named as the beneficiary unless written consent is given, it is undoubtedly better to have the beneficiary designations accurately reflect the spouse so that there are no delays or issues in having the benefits paid.
2. REVIEW LIFE INSURANCE
Marriage can be a good time to review life insurance needs. Workplace life insurance can be limited, and if a couple depends upon having both incomes to pay for the rent or the mortgage, or to maintain a certain marital lifestyle, then additional life insurance may be warranted.
In addition, if newlyweds want to have children in the future, it may be best for them to consider getting additional life insurance while they are young and healthy, so they can lock in premiums at favorable rates.
3. EXECUTE THEIR WILLS
Even young newlyweds without many assets should execute basic wills that leave all assets to their spouse. Without a will, state law dictates where certain property passes when an individual dies -- and not all such laws leave 100% of property to the spouse.
Additionally, if newlyweds have a prenuptial agreement, they should execute wills to reflect the terms of the agreement. Its important to understand that signing a prenuptial agreement is not enough. The estate plan must mirror what the agreement provides in the event of the death of a spouse.
4. GET DURABLE POWERS OF ATTORNEY & HEALTH ADVANCE DIRECTIVES
Marriage does not give a spouse the absolute right to make decisions for the other in the event of incapacity. To ensure the spouse is the one who can make medical and legal/financial decisions, each of your newlywed clients should execute a durable power of attorney and a medical advance directive. This will provide them with the ability to make decisions for one another in the case of an accident or other unexpected incapacity. In addition to naming the other spouse under these documents, they should name an alternate in the event of an accident where both spouses are injured.
5. DISCUSS HOME OWNERSHIP DOCUMENTS
Many individuals purchase a home prior to marriage. After the wedding, it may be advantageous to change the home ownership from being owned by only one of the newlyweds to both of them -- either as joint property or as tenants-by-the-entirety, which can have the advantage of avoiding probate and, in some states, provide added creditor protection.
Similarly, whether newlyweds owned a home prior to marriage or plan to buy their first home together, they should make sure they investigate and take advantage of their state's homestead laws. Homestead laws differ in potency from state to state, providing advantages ranging from decreased property taxes and creditor protection to certain ownership rights upon the death of a spouse.
In some states the homeowners may need to record a document at the registry of deeds or file paperwork with the town clerk's office to take advantage of the laws.
Estate planning attorney Tracy Craig is partner at Mirick O'Connell and chairwoman of the firms trusts and estates group.
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