Estate Planning Basics You Need to Know – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The key reason for estate planning is to create a plan directing where your assets will go after you die. The ultimate goal is for wealth and real property to be given to the people or organizations you wish, while minimizing taxes, so beneficiaries can keep more of your wealth. However, good estate planning also reduces family arguments, protects minor children and provides a roadmap for end-of-life decisions, says the article “What is estate planning?” from Bankrate.

Whenever you have opened a checking and savings account, retirement account or purchased life insurance, you have been asked to provide the name of a beneficiary for the account. This person (or persons) will receive these assets directly upon your passing. You can have multiple beneficiaries, but you should always have contingent beneficiaries, in case something happens to your primary beneficiaries. Named beneficiaries always supersede any declarations in your will, so you want to make sure any account that permits a beneficiary has at least one and update them as you go through the inevitable changes of life.

A Last Will and Testament is a key document in your estate plan. It directs the distribution of assets that are not distributed through otherwise designated beneficiaries. Property you own jointly, typically but not always with a spouse, passes to the surviving owner(s). An executor you name in your will is appointed by the court to take care of carrying out your instructions in the will. Choose the executor carefully—he or she will have a lot to take care of, including the probate of your will.

Probate is the process of having a court review your estate plan and approve it. It can be challenging and depending upon where you live and how complicated your estate is, could take six months to two years to complete. It can also be expensive, with court fees determined by the size of the estate.

Many people use trusts to minimize how much of their estate goes through probate and to minimize estate taxes. Assets that are distributed through trusts are also private, unlike probate documents, which become public documents and can be seen by anyone from nosy relatives to salespeople to thieves and scammers.

Trusts can be complex, but they do not have to be. Trusts can also offer a much greater level of control over how assets are distributed. For instance, a spendthrift trust is used when an heir is not good with handling money. A trustee distributes assets, and a timeframe or specific requirements can be set before any funds are distributed.

Living wills are also part of an estate plan. These are documents used to give another person the ability to make decisions on your behalf, if you become incapacitated or if decisions need to be made concerning end-of-life care.

An estate plan can help prevent family fights over who gets what. Arguments over sentimental items, or someone wanting to make a grab for cash can create fractures that last for generations. A properly prepared estate plan makes your wishes clear, lessening the reasons for squabbles during a difficult period.

Protecting minor children and heirs is another important reason to have a well thought out estate plan. Your Last Will and Testament is used to nominate a guardian for minor children and can also be used to direct who will be in charge of any assets left for the children’s care.

Reference: Bankrate (Aug. 3, 2020) “What is estate planning?”

 

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How to Plan for Incapacity – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Planning for incapacity is just as important as planning for death. One is certain, the other is extremely likely. Therefore, it makes sense to prepare in advance, advises the article “Planning ahead for incapacity helps you and family” from The Press-Enterprise.

Let us start by defining capacity. Each state has its own language but for the most part, incapacity means that a person is incapable of making decisions or performing certain acts. A concerned adult child is usually the one trying to have a senior parent declared incapacitated.

A person who has a mental or physical disorder may still be capable of entering into a contract, getting married, making medical decisions, executing wills or trusts, or performing other actions. However, before a person is declared incapacitated by medical professionals or a court, having a plan in place makes a world of difference for the family or trusted person who will be caring for them. Certain legal documents are needed.

Power of Attorney. This is the primary document needed in case of incapacity. There are several kinds, and an estate planning attorney will know which one will be best for your situation. A “springing” power of attorney becomes effective, only when a person is deemed incapacitated and continues throughout their incapacity. A POA can be general, broadly authorizing a named person to act on different matters, like finances, determining where you will live, entering into contracts, caring for pets, etc. A POA can also be drafted with limited and specific powers, like to sell a car within a certain timeframe.

The POA can be activated before you become incapacitated. Let us say that you are diagnosed with early-stage dementia. You may still have legal capacity but might wish a trusted family member to help handle matters. For elderly people who feel more comfortable having someone else handle their finances or the sale of their home, a POA can be created to allow a trusted individual to act on their behalf for these specific tasks.

A POA is a powerful document. A POA gives another person control of your life. Yes, your named agent has a fiduciary duty to put your interests first and could be sued for mismanagement or abuse. However, the goal of a POA is to protect your interests, not put them at risk. Choosing a person to be your POA must be done with care. You should also be sure to name an alternate POA. A POA expires on your death, so the person will not be involved in any decisions regarding your estate, burial or funeral arrangements. That is the role of the executor, named in your will.

Advance health care directive, or living will, provides your instructions about medical care. This document is one that most people would rather not think about. However, it is very important if your wishes are to be followed. It explains what kind of medical care you do or do not want, in the event of dementia, a stroke, coma or brain injury. It gets into the details: do you want resuscitation, mechanical ventilation or feeding tubes to keep you alive? It can also be used for post-death wishes concerning autopsies, organ donation, cremation or burial.

The dramatic events of 2020 have taught us all that we do not know what is coming in the near future. Planning in advance is a kindness to yourself and your family.

Reference: The Press-Enterprise (July 19, 2020) “Planning ahead for incapacity helps you and family”

 

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That Last Step: Trust Funding – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Neglecting to fund trusts is a surprisingly common mistake, and one that can undo the best estate and tax plans. Many people put it on the back burner, then forget about it, says the article “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” from Forbes.

Done properly, trust funding helps avoid probate, provides for you and your family in the event of incapacity and helps save on estate taxes.

Creating a revocable trust gives you control. With a revocable trust, you can make changes to the trust while you are living, including funding. Think of a trust like an empty box—you can put assets in it now, or after you pass. If you transfer assets to the trust now, however, your executor will not have to do it when you die.

Note that if you do not put assets in the trust while you are living, those assets will go through the probate process. While the executor will have the authority to transfer assets, they will have to get court approval. That takes time and costs money. It is best to do it while you are living.

A trust helps if you become incapacitated. You may be managing the trust while you are living, but what happens if you die or become too sick to manage your own affairs? If the trust is funded and a successor trustee has been named, the successor trustee will be able to manage your assets and take care of you and your family. If the successor trustee has control of an empty, unfunded trust, a conservatorship may need to be appointed by the court to oversee assets.

There is a tax benefit to trusts. For married people, trusts are often created that contain provisions for estate tax savings that defer estate taxes until the death of the second spouse. Income is provided to the surviving spouse and access to the principal during their lifetime. The children are usually the ultimate beneficiaries. However, the trust will not work if it is empty.

Depending on where you live, a trust may benefit you with regard to state estate taxes. Putting money in the trust takes it out of your taxable estate. You will need to work with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the assets are properly structured. For instance, if your assets are owned jointly with your spouse, they will not pass into a trust at your death and will not be outside of your taxable estate.

Move the right assets to the right trust. It is very important that any assets you transfer to the trust are aligned with your estate plan. Taxable brokerage accounts, bank accounts and real estate are usually transferred into a trust. Some tangible assets may be transferred into the trust, as well as any stocks from a family business or interests in a limited liability company. Your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and insurance broker should be consulted to avoid making expensive mistakes.

You have worked hard to accumulate assets and protecting them with a trust is a good idea. Just do not forget the final step of funding the trust.

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”

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Don’t Neglect a Plan for Your Pet During the Pandemic – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

If you have a pet, chances are you have worried about what would happen to your furry companion if something were to happen to you. However, worrying and having an actual plan are two very different things, as discussed at a Council of Aging webinar. That is the subject of the article “COA speakers urge pet owners to plan for their animal’s future” that appeared in The Harvard Press.

It is stressful to worry about something happening, but it is not that difficult to put something in place. After you have got a plan for yourself, your children and your property, add a plan for your pet.

Start by considering who would really commit to caring for your pet, if you had a long-term illness or in the event of your unexpected passing. Have a discussion with them. Do not assume that they will take care of your pet. A casual agreement is not enough. The owner needs to be sure that the potential caretaker understands the degree of commitment and responsibility involved.

If you should need to receive home health care, do not also assume that your health care provider will be willing to take care of your pet. It is best to find a pet sitter or friend who can care for the pet before the need arises. Write down the pet’s information: the name and contact info for the vets, the brand of food, medication and any behavioral quirks.

There are legal documents that can be put into place to protect a pet. Your will can contain general directions about how the pet should be cared for, and a certain amount of money can be set aside in a will, although that method may not be legally enforceable. Owners cannot leave money directly to a pet, but a pet trust can be created to hold money to be used for the benefit of the pet, under the management of the trustee. The trust can also be accessed while the owner is still living. Therefore, if the owner becomes incapacitated, the pet’s care will not be interrupted.

An estate planning attorney will know the laws concerning pet trusts in your state. Not all states permit them, although many do.

A pet trust is also preferable to a mention in a will, because the caretaker will have to wait until the will is probated to receive funds to care for your pet. The cost of veterinary services, food, medication, boarding or pet sitters can add up quickly, as pet owners know.

A durable power of attorney can also be used to make provisions for the care of a pet. The person in that role has the authority to access and use the owner’s financial resources to care for the animal.

The legal documents will not contain information about the pet, so it is a good idea to provide info on the pet’s habits, medications, etc., in a separate document. Choose the caretaker wisely—your pet’s well-being will depend upon it!

Reference: The Harvard Press (May 14, 2020) “COA speakers urge pet owners to plan for their animal’s future”

 

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Alzheimer’s, Dementia and other Brain Diseases Require Special Estate Planning Steps – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

There are certain steps that can be taken by individuals, loved ones and family members to make this challenging time safer and smarter, advises an article “Financial And Estate Planning Steps To Take Now: Special Considerations For Those With Brain Disease” from Forbes.

Anyone living with a neurologic condition needs to be sure their planning reflects not only their condition but their personal experience of the condition. The variability of each person’s experience of a brain disease, from symptoms and severity to the progression rate and future prognosis to the possibility of any recovery, affects how they need to plan.

For an Alzheimer’s patient, in early stages there may be no problems in signing legal documents and putting legal safeguards in place to protect finances. Most people are not aware that the degree of competency to sign legal documents varies, depending upon the complexity of the documents to be signed and the circumstances. A relatively low level of competency is required to sign a will. This is known as “testamentary capacity.” A higher level of competency is required to sign something like a revocable trust, investment policy statement, etc. Therefore, a person who may be legally able to sign a will may not have the legal capacity to sign other documents. Alzheimer’s patients need to get their entire estate plan in order, as soon as a diagnosis is received. Safeguards are extremely important, including having an independent person, like a CPA or trusted family member, receive copies of all monthly bank and brokerage statements, in case abilities decline faster than anticipated.

Patients living with peripheral neuropathy may experience issues with balance, burning sensations, dizziness, hypersensitive skin and pain that make wearing socks or shoes impossible. If the condition becomes so severe that the person becomes homebound, they need to make changes: set up accounts, so bills can be paid online, have income streams set to automatic deposit and simplify and consolidate accounts. It is important to have a Power of Attorney (POA) that is effective immediately or a revocable living trust with a co-trustee. In this way, you do not have to leave home to conduct your business.

Parkinson’s disease may not be well understood by professional advisors. You will need to explain that your facial expression—Parkinsonian masked face—does not mean that you are not responding to a conversation. They need to know that your handwriting may change, becoming small and cramped. This can result in a bank or other financial institution refusing to accept your signature on documents. Your attorney can prepare a document that confirms you are living with Parkinson’s disease and that micrographia is one of your symptoms. The document should include three or four different signatures to reflect the variations. Have each signature witnessed and notarized.

People living with MS (multiple sclerosis) face the possibility of an exacerbation that could leave them incapacitated at any time. A revocable trust to coordinate financial management, with trusted individuals as co-trustees should be in place.

For people with these and other brain illnesses, an emergency financial and legal road map needs to be prepared. It should include monthly recurring bills, non-recurring bills like life insurance, property taxes, etc. Contact information for key advisors, your estate planning attorney, CPA, financial advisor, banker, insurance agent, etc., needs to be shared. Your estate plan should be updated, if you have not reviewed it in three or four years. If you do not have an estate plan in place, now is the time to have one created.

Reference: Forbes (May 17, 2020) “Financial And Estate Planning Steps To Take Now: Special Considerations For Those With Brain Disease”

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When Should You Have ‘The Talk’ with Your Kids? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Talking about who will control your assets is always a tricky thing, says AARP.org in a recent article “Do Your Kids Know Where to Find All Your Money if Tragedy Strikes?” The risk of adult children being caught unawares or without access to a parental funds could lead to big problems, if the parents should die or become incapacitated unexpectedly. Experienced estate planning attorneys know the conversation is better had now, than pushed into the background with a giant surprise in the future.

When a parent’s finances are revealed only after their death, or if dementia strikes, the unexpected responsibility can create a lot of stress. However, there are also reasons not to tell. If a child has a substance abuse problem, or is in a bad marriage, this information may be best kept under wraps. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, there are some universal rules to consider.

Short on cash? Do not make a secret of it. If you might end up needing help during retirement, it is best to tell your children early on. Family members have helped each other since there were families, but the earlier you involve them, the more time they have to help you find more resources and make plans.

Dealing with big numbers? You might want to wait. The amount of money you have worked a lifetime to save may look like an endless supply to a 22-year old. When young adults learn there is a pot of gold, things can go south, fast. If you have a spouse and are relatively young and healthy, then all the children need to know, is that you are well set for retirement. By the time you are closer to 80, then your children and/or a trusted financial representative and your estate planning attorney will need to know where your money is and how to access it.

How to share the details? Start by making a complete list of all of your assets, including account numbers, key contacts and any other details your executor or agents will need to handle your affairs. Put that information into an envelope and make sure that your children or your estate planning lawyer know where it is. If the information is kept on your computer or on an online portal, make sure the right people have access to the passwords, so they can access the information.

How to share the big picture? Estate planning attorneys often recommend a family meeting in their offices, with all of the children present. It is helpful to have this meeting happen in neutral territory, and even children who tend to squabble among themselves behave better in a lawyer’s conference room. You can explain who the executor will be, and why.

Introduce them to your team. Chances are you have a long-standing relationship with your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and accountant. These are the people your children will be working with after you have passed. Having them meet before you die or become incapacitated, will be better for a working relationship that will likely occur during a stressful time.

Reference: AARP.org (April 24, 2020) “Do Your Kids Know Where to Find All Your Money if Tragedy Strikes?”

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Digital Assets Need to Be Protected In Estate Plans – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Most people have an extensive network of digital relationships with retailers, financial institutions and even government agencies. Companies and institutions, from household utilities to grocery delivery services have invested millions in making it easier for consumers to do everything online—and the coronavirus has made our online lives take a giant leap. As a result, explains the article “Supporting Your Clients’ Digital Legacy” from Bloomberg Tax, practically all estates now include digital assets, a new class of assets that hold both financial and sentimental value.

In the last year, there has been a growing number of reports of the number of profiles of people who have died but whose pages are still alive on Facebook, Linked In and similar platforms. Taking down profiles, preserving photos and gaining access to URLs are all part of managing a digital footprint that needs to be planned for as part of an estate plan.

There are a number of laws that could impact a user’s digital estate during life and death. Depending upon the asset and how it is used, determines what happens to it after the owner dies. Fiduciary access laws outline what the executor or attorney is allowed to do with digital assets, and the law varies from one country to another. In the United States, almost all states have adopted a version of RUFADAA, the law created by the U.S. Uniform Law Commission. However, all digital assets are also subject to the Terms of Service Agreement (TOSAs) that we click on when signing up for a new app or software. The TOSA may not permit anyone but the account owner to gain access to the account or the assets in the account.

Digital assets are virtual and may be difficult to find without a paper trail. Leaving passwords for the fiduciary seems like the simple solution, but passwords do not convey user wishes. What if the executor tries to get into an account and is blocked? Unauthorized access, even with a password, is still violating the terms of the TOSAs.

People need to plan for digital assets, just as they do any other asset. Here are some of the questions to consider:

  • What will happen to digital assets with financial value, like loyalty points, travel rewards, cryptocurrency, gaming tokens or the digital assets of a business?
  • Who will be able to get digital assets with sentimental value, like photos, videos and social media accounts?
  • What about privacy and cybersecurity concerns, and identity theft?

What will happen to your digital assets? Facebook and Google offer Legacy Contact and Inactive Manager, online tools they provide to designate third-party account access. Some, but not many, other online platforms have similar tools in place. The best way, for now, may be to make a list of all of your digital accounts and look through them for death or incapacity instructions. It may not be a complete solution, but it is at least a start.

Reference: Bloomberg Tax (April 10, 2020) “Supporting Your Clients’ Digital Legacy”

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Preparing for an Emergency Includes Power of Attorney – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Unexpected events can happen at any time. Without a backup plan, finances are vulnerable. The importance of having an estate plan and organized legal and financial documents on a scale of one to ten is fifteen, advises the article “Are you prepared to hand over your finances to someone in an emergency?” from USA Today. Maybe it does not matter so much if your phone bill is a month late but miss a life insurance premium payment and your policy may lapse. If you are over 70, chances are slim to none that you will be able to purchase a new one.

When estate plans and finances are organized to the point that you can easily hand them over to a trusted spouse, adult child or other responsible person, you gain the peace of mind of knowing you and your family are prepared for anything. Someone can take care of you and your family, in case the unexpected happens.

A financial power of attorney (POA) gives another person the legal authority to take financial actions on your behalf. The person you give this responsibility to, should be someone you trust and who will put your best interests ahead of their own. An estate planning attorney will be able to create a power of attorney that can be very specific about the powers that are granted.

You may want your POA to be able to pay bills, and manage your investment accounts, for instance, but you may not want them to make changes to trusts. A personalized power of attorney document can give you that level of control.

Consider your routine for taking care of household finances. Most of us do these tasks on autopilot. We do not think about how it would be if someone else had to take over, but we should. Take a pad of paper and make notes about every task you complete in a given month: what bills do you pay monthly, which are paid quarterly and what comes due only once or twice a year? By making a detailed record of the tasks, you will save your spouse or family member a great deal of time and angst.

Is your paperwork organized so that someone else will be able to find things? Most people create their own systems, but they are not always understandable to anyone else. Create a folder or a file that holds all of your important documents, like insurance policies and investment accounts, legal documents and deeds.

If you pay bills online, naming someone else on the account so they have access is ideal. If not, then try consolidating the bills you can. Many banks allow users to set up bill payment through one account.

Keep legal documents and records up to date. If you have not reviewed your estate planning documents in more than three years, now is the time to speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your estate plan still reflects your wishes. Call your estate planning attorney to discuss your next steps.

Reference: USA Today (March 20, 2020) “Are you prepared to hand over your finances to someone in an emergency?”

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The Second Most Powerful Estate Planning Document: Power of Attorney – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

All too often, people wait until it is too late to execute a power of attorney. It is uncomfortable to think about giving someone full access to our finances, while we are still competent. However, a power of attorney can be created that is fully exercisable only when needed, according to a useful article “Power of attorney can be tailored to circumstances” from The News-Enterprise. Some estate planning attorneys believe that the power of attorney, or POA, is actually the second most important estate planning document after a will. Here’s what a POA can do for you.

The term POA is a reference to the document, but it also is used to refer to the person named as the agent in the document.

Generally speaking, any POA creates a fiduciary relationship, for either legal or financial purposes. A Medical or Healthcare POA creates a relationship for healthcare decisions. Sometimes these are for a specific purpose or for a specific period of time. However, a Durable POA is created to last until death or until it is revoked. It can be created to cover a wide array of needs.

Here is the critical fact: a POA of any kind needs to be executed, that is, agreed to and signed by a person who is competent to make legal decisions. The problem occurs when family members or spouse do not realize they need a POA, until their loved one is not legally competent and does not understand what they are signing.

Incompetent or incapacitated individuals may not sign legal documents. Further, the law protects people from improperly signing, by requiring two witnesses to observe the individual signing.

The law does allow those with limited competency to sign estate planning documents, so long as they are in a moment of lucidity at the time of the signing. However, this is tricky and can be dangerous, as legal issues may be raised for all involved, if capacity is challenged later on.

If someone has become incompetent and has not executed a valid power of attorney, a loved one will need to apply for guardianship. This is a court process that is expensive, takes several months and leads to the court being involved in many aspects of the person’s life. The basics of this process: three professionals are needed to personally assess the “respondent,” the person who is said to be incompetent. The respondent loses all rights to make decisions of any kind for themselves. They also lose the right to vote.

A power of attorney can be executed quickly and does not require the person to lose any rights.

The biggest concern to executing a power of attorney, is that the person is giving an agent the control of their money and property. This is true, but the POA can be created so that it does not hand over this control immediately.

This is where the “springing” power of attorney comes in. Springing POA means that the document, while executed immediately, does not become effective for use by the agent, until a certain condition is met. The document can be written that the POA becomes in effect, if the person is deemed mentally incompetent by a doctor. The springing clause gives the agent the power to act if and when it is necessary for someone else to take over the individual’s affairs.

Having an estate planning attorney create the power of attorney that is best suited for each individual’s situation is the most sensible way to provide the protection of a POA, without worrying about giving up control while one is competent.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 24, 2020) “Power of attorney can be tailored to circumstances”

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Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

For some couples, getting married just does not feel necessary. However, they do not enjoy the automatic legal rights and protections that legally wed spouses do, especially when it comes to death. There are many spousal rights that come with a marriage certificate, reports CNBC in the article “Here is what happens to your partner if you are not married and you die.” Without the benefit of marriage, extra planning is necessary to protect each other.

Taxes are a non-starter. There is no federal or state income tax form that will permit a non-married couple to file jointly. If one of the couple’s employers is the source of health insurance for both, the amount that the company contributes is taxable to the employee. A spouse does not have to pay taxes on health insurance.

More important, however, is what happens when one of the partners dies or becomes incapacitated. A number of documents need to be created, so should one become incapacitated, the other is able to act on their behalf. Preparations also need to be made, so the surviving partner is protected and can manage the deceased’s estate.

In order to be prepared, an estate plan is necessary. Creating a plan for what happens to you and your estate is critical for unmarried couples who want their commitment to each other to be protected at death. The general default for a married couple is that everything goes to the surviving spouse. However, for unmarried couples, the default may be a sibling, children, parents or other relatives. It will not be the unmarried partner.

This is especially true, if a person dies with no will. The courts in the state of residence will decide who gets what, depending upon the law of that state. If there are multiple heirs who have conflicting interests, it could become nasty—and expensive.

However, a will is not all that is needed.

Most tax-advantaged accounts—Roth IRAs, traditional IRAs, 401(k) plans, etc.—have beneficiaries named. That person receives the assets upon death of the owner. The same is true for investment accounts, annuities, life insurance and any financial product that has a beneficiary named. The beneficiary receives the asset, regardless of what is in the will. Therefore, checking beneficiaries need to be part of the estate plan.

Checking, savings and investment accounts that are in both partner’s names will become the property of the surviving person, but accounts with only one person’s name on them will not. A Transfer on Death (TOD) or Payable on Death (POD) designation should be added to any single-name accounts.

Unmarried couples who own a home together need to check how the deed is titled, regardless who is on the mortgage. The legal owner is the person whose name is on the deed. If the house is only in one person’s name, it will not become part of the estate. Change the deed so both names are on the deed with rights of survivorship, so both are entitled to assume full ownership upon the death of the other.

To prepare for incapacity, an estate planning attorney can help create a durable power of attorney for health care, so partners will be able to make medical decisions on each other’s behalf. A living will should also be created for both people, which states wishes for end of life decisions. For financial matters, a durable power of attorney will allow each partner to have control over each other’s financial affairs.

It takes a little extra planning for unmarried couples, but the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you have prepared to care for each other, until death do you part, is priceless.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 16, 2019) “Here is what happens to your partner if you are not married and you die”

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