Estate planning is vital for unmarried couples.The whole concept of estate planning revolves around protecting your family, but not all families look the same—and marriage isn’t the right choice for every couple. Whether you are younger and recently moved in with your partner, or older and divorced or widowed but have chosen not to remarry, estate planning is actually more important for your relationship than for a married couple.

Why You Need an Estate Plan If You Are Unmarried

While most people focus on the emotional or religious aspects, the fact is that marriage is a legal institution between you, your spouse, and the state of North Carolina. A marriage certificate comes with legal protections and changes to the tax structure that you don’t enjoy if you remain unmarried.

After years of living together, you may assume everyone knows your wishes and that your partner will automatically receive your property if you die or suffer a major health setback. That isn’t actually the case. Thankfully, an estate planning attorney can help you sidestep these legal and financial challenges and prepare for the future by taking into account worst-case scenarios. 

An estate plan offers peace of mind and the knowledge your family will be protected if one of you dies or suffers a drastic change in health, or if both of you die at the same time and you have surviving children. 

In particular, estate planning for unmarried couples means ensuring your partner isn’t left out of healthcare decisions if you are incapacitated, as well as providing for your partner when you pass away. Without planning ahead of time, your partner may be overruled by family members and could receive absolutely nothing if the probate court ends up making decisions for how to divvy up your estate.

How to Approach Estate Planning as an Unmarried Couple

Preventing these nightmare scenarios requires careful consideration ahead of time and may mean restructuring how your assets are currently handled. In some cases, it may make sense to jointly own assets or to gift those assets directly.  

However, simply giving real estate or money to your partner may cause issues with Medicaid’s five-year lookback period. While that may not seem important now, this common financial mistake can be devastating if you or your partner end up needing help paying for a nursing home in the future. In addition to those health and financial considerations, it’s important to work with an estate planning lawyer to:

  • Consider what will happen if you and your partner break up before death by defining who owns what, as well as who will be responsible for paying off any debt you acquired as a couple.
  • Decide where family heirlooms will go after you or your partner pass away.
  • Ensure your partner is able to remain in your home if you die, rather than having the property going directly to children or a distant relative if you don’t have kids.
  • Make medical decisions for your partner if they become physically or mentally incapacitated, such as by a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease or suffering a catastrophic injury.
  • Prevent assets from going to a former spouse or being spent on the probate process after death.

Even without the legal protections offered by marriage, there are still multiple paths for tackling these issues. Talk with an attorney to decide if you should take routes like:

  • Drafting a cohabitation agreement, which is similar to a prenuptial agreement but for unmarried couples. 
  • Making a will to set out a legal document making your wishes clear.
  • Putting together advanced health care directives.
  • Granting power of attorney.
  • Placing assets in trusts so the surviving partner retains them and they don’t go through the probate process at all.

Prepare for Your Future and Keep Your Partner Safe

Your situation is unique, and the best method of protecting your assets and providing for your partner will be different for you than any other North Carolina couple. Call us and let us know the basics of what you hope to achieve through estate planning so we can craft a plan that best fits your needs.