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Estate Planning: Two's Company

Getting your individual estate planning under control is a significant step on the path to financial security. But if you choose to start a relationship, you'll find not only that your partner may face much different circumstances from yours, but also that you may need to incorporate new ideas and dreams into your own planning.

Some of the questions that face couples include the following:

1. How can I include my partner in my estate planning?

2. How can we ensure that our families and others respect our mutual wishes?

Love and marriage
Most states have a number of legal provisions that automatically apply to heterosexual couples who choose to marry. For instance, if a married person dies without a will, the person's spouse is usually entitled to some or all of the person's assets. If the person had created a will before marriage that doesn't mention the spouse, then the spouse may challenge the will and is often entitled to at least a share of the estate. When a married person requires a medical decision, hospitals and doctors are usually comfortable accepting direction from a spouse. Employers often provide benefits for spouses that are not available to unmarried partners.

In contrast, for couples who cannot or choose not to marry, creating similar protections for each other is difficult and sometimes even impossible. Such couples must take every opportunity to state their wishes explicitly, and even then, they risk the possibility that some will not honor their intentions without resistance. Although some states have domestic-partnership laws, not all companies extend spousal benefits to domestic partners. The issue is so contentious that some attorneys and financial planners specialize in providing estate-planning advice to unmarried couples.

Unfortunately, some of the strongest resistance in planning for couples can come from the families of one or both of the partners. Again, married couples have an advantage in that the state's respect of the institution of marriage provides strong protection against attack even from family members. Unmarried couples, on the other hand, often obtain little or no protection from the state, and many people are more sympathetic to the opinions of family members outside the context of marriage.

The best defense against attack from family members is to avoid confrontation in the first place. Often, beginning to openly communicate early in a relationship will allow family members to state their concerns and give the partners a chance to address them before they grow into problems. If communication breaks down, the best alternative is to inform everyone of your wishes while creating legal documents that give as much discretion to your partner as you can.

Integrating your estate planning with your partner can help build a road map of your mutual vision for the future. If that future includes raising children, a well-integrated estate plan will have the flexibility to accommodate the changes you will then need to incorporate.

Are you at a different place in your life from what you're read here? No problem -- our series addresses estate-planning needs for a variety of life stages. Just go back to the beginning and let the links take you where you want to go.

Robert Brokamp of ourRule Your Retirementservice had an estate plan before graduating from junior high school. If you need help planning your retirement, take Rule Your Retirement for afree trial run today.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger welcomes your comments.

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