Estate planning can be complicated enough if you don’t have a spouse. But things can get more difficult for married couples. Even if you and your spouse have agreed on most major issues in the past — such as child rearing, where to live and other lifestyle choices — you shouldn’t automatically assume that you’ll both be on the same page when it comes to making estate planning decisions.
A worst-case scenario is when one spouse moves forward with his or her estate plan without the knowledge or approval of the other, to the eventual detriment of the family. Thus, it’s critical for both spouses to clearly communicate their estate planning goals to each other.
Where to begin?
Start with the basic premise that state law generally governs estate matters. Therefore, state law determines if your property is community property, separate property or tenancy by the entirety. For instance, California is a community property state. That means half of what a resident owns is his or her spouse’s property and vice versa. There’s no circumventing this law when planning for a joint estate.
Next, consider your family’s dynamics. Emotions can run high and tensions may result, for example, if a family includes children from a prior marriage. If these issues aren’t addressed beforehand, it could lead to legal squabbles.
Don’t forget about the tax implications. Currently, married couples can take advantage of a record-high federal gift and estate tax exemption that shelters most estates from tax. However, if you and your spouse are high earners (or otherwise have large estates) ensure that you incorporate estate tax minimization techniques into your coordinated plans.
Finally, decide together on distributions of assets to designated beneficiaries. You may intend, for example, for expensive jewelry to go to one child, but your spouse might have other ideas.
Keep lines of communication open
Indeed, clear communication is essential for married couples when developing estate plans. We can help ensure that you and your spouse both have plans that work in harmony.