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Estate Planning for Newlyweds

The first thing you want to do as a newlywed probably has nothing to do with estate planning, but it's critical to tackle it early. Taking the time to sit down with your spouse and update your estate plans will ensure that, should the worst happen, your new family is prepared to handle the unexpected.

So what do you need to do?

Start small: Change your account beneficiaries
The quickest and easiest thing to update is the beneficiary, or "transfer on death" designations, for your accounts. This is especially important for 401(k) and IRA accounts; if you or your spouse want to leave an account to someone else, or if you want to split it between parties, you might need a notarized acknowledgement.

Talk about the options and your preferences, and then update the following:

  • Insurance policies
  • Existing will or trust
  • Bank accounts
  • Investment accounts
  • 401(k) plan or other employer-sponsored retirement account
  • IRA
  • Health savings account

Also consider what would happen if both of you should pass away. Do you elect a secondary beneficiary, or would you prefer to provide detailed instructions in your will?

Next: Update your wills
You and your spouse should talk about how you want your assets to be split up should anything happen to each or both of you. This can be an uncomfortable subject, so take it slow and try to focus the conversation on the people you care about and how you want to be there for them in the worst-case scenario.

Do you want to ensure that your existing children or your parents get a set amount? How should your assets be split up if both of you should pass away or become incapacitated? Who would you want caring for any existing or future children?

Once you have an idea of what you want to do, make sure the necessary directives are set in stone in a formal will.

Don't forget about durable powers of attorney
Unless you have a durable power of attorney in place, your spouse won't be able to handle your individual financial affairs if you become incapacitated. This can affect everything from your business to any jointly held real estate that you own together. To make sure you can each make decisions on the other's behalf, ensure that you put a durable power of attorney in place. You may want to check with each financial institution you work with to find out whether they require their own paperwork -- this few minutes of work could save you a lot of agony later on.

If one of you prefers not to take on this responsibility, find a third party whom you both trust to represent your family.

Remember to draft your advance medical directive
Similarly, be sure that your spouse knows what you would wish for in certain medical situations through an advance medical directive, and be sure you nominate each other as health care proxies. These documents will outline your medical preferences and will give each of you the requisite power of attorney to access medical records and make health care decisions.

Would you want to be kept on life support as long as possible? Would you prefer to exhaust all medical options? It's an uncomfortable topic, but knowing each other's wishes -- and, more importantly, having them on paper -- will make such a harrowing experience just a little bit easier.

Sizable assets? Consider a trust
Do you and your spouse have a sizable estate, or do you own a lot property and several accounts that you want to combine? Are you keen to maintain your privacy and avoid probate?

In this case a trust might be a good idea: It gives you more options for managing and bequeathing assets, prevents probate, and makes property transitions seamless.

Ensure your assets are titled properly
There are myriad ways to title your assets once you're married. Joint tenancy with rights of survivorship passes the asset to your spouse if you should pass away, but it doesn't provide for power of attorney if you're incapacitated. Tenancy in common ensures that each person's share is distributed as directed by his or her will, but it won't be of much use to your family if you don't have a will.

Take the time to find out about your titling options for financial accounts and property. What type of title will work best for you as a couple should anything happen?

While estate planning is rarely anyone's favorite subject and can feel like a bit of a downer, planning for the worst will give your family the gift of security, solidity, and protection. Consider it a victory to be toasted -- one that's even better than finishing all those thank-you cards!

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