Why Estate Planning is Important if You’re Single: Another Chat With an Estate Planning Attorney

Estate planning is important even if you’re a single millennial. Hear why from this expert.

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We’ve already spoke Michael J. Greenberg to go over an overview of estate planning and why you should care about it as a millennial. This month, we’re going to dig a little bit deeper on this whole estate planning thing.

Now, we’re chatting with Michael about why we should care about estate planning if we’re single. Yes, it is still important!

How is estate planning different for single millennials rather than singles of previous generations? Is it even different?
One way millennials are different is that they are waiting longer to get married, if they get married at all. Their estate plans in place for their single years last through more of their collective adulthood than estate plans of previous generations. If millennials eventually do get married, they often come into a marriage having worked for a number of years. During that period of time before marriage, they could have acquired a good number of assets, including sizable bank accounts, retirement accounts, and possibly a home or apartment. Other situations that affect millennials more than previous generations include a higher percentage of children being born out of wedlock, reproductive rights issues (in vitro fertilizations, surrogacy, frozen eggs), same sex relationships, and digital assets.

Why should I care about estate planning if I’m single?
Estate planning is more than just a will, which lays out your plans after you die. Many estate planning documents have to do with how you want to live your life in case of an emergency. The Power of Attorney allows another individual to step into your shoes to help manage your financial affairs, the Health Care Proxy allows you to appoint a person to speak for you if you are unable to speak for yourself, and the Living Will declares how you would want to be cared for if you had a life expectancy of less than six months. These set of documents are known as Advance Directives by estate planning lawyers.

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Can you explain the Advance Directives in more detail?
A Power of Attorney allows you to appoint another individual to act in your place to assist you in managing your day-to-day financial affairs, such as to write checks on your behalf, or to sell or purchase property for you. You would likely only need one in the event of a sudden emergency, or to manage your affairs if you should become incapacitated — but you never know what can happen and that’s why it is a good idea to have one.

A Power of Attorney is a very powerful document–as the person you appoint has control over your assets. Thus, only a person you absolutely trust (e.g., parent, sibling, lifelong friend) should be appointed as an agent in the Power of Attorney.

A Health Care Proxy appoints someone else to make your health care decisions for you if you become incapacitated and therefore, can be used to protect your health care wishes if you cannot speak for yourself. Routine decisions and decisions regarding life-sustaining treatment may be made using a Health Care Proxy, but your health care agent will not be able to withhold artificial nutrition or hydration unless your intention to do so has been clearly expressed in the health care proxy itself, or in more detail in a separate living will or medical order for life sustaining treatment. In addition, you can now also state your wishes concerning organ donorship in your health care proxy. It is important to choose someone you trust, someone who understands your health care concerns, and someone you believe will actively and effectively carry out your health care wishes.

A living will describes your intentions regarding artificial life-sustaining procedures if you become unable to make these decisions for yourself — for example, if you got into an accident and were in a coma. You can express your desire to forgo certain life-sustaining measures, such as artificial nutrition or hydration (which may be imposed if you are unable to eat or drink on your own) or mechanical respiration (which may be imposed if you cannot breathe on your own). Other types of treatments that you may decide to forgo include cardiopulmonary resuscitation (if your heart stops beating), antibiotic treatment, saline injections (to prevent dehydration), and pain relief (beyond a stated maximum amount). Bottom line — you should create a Living Will if you would not want to be kept alive artificially by medical devices if you were to be in a persistent vegetative state.

I don’t plan on ever getting married or having children. Do I still need estate planning? Why?
As mentioned above, the Advance Directives affect your life, regardless of your marital state or whether you have children. If you’re thinking just in terms of leaving your assets to other individuals, and you do not come up with a plan yourself as stated in a Will or a Trust, your assets would be distributed based on the state’s intestacy laws. The intestacy laws determine who will receive your assets based on your family tree and next closest living relatives. You might prefer to leave your money to a close friend or a favorite charity. You worked hard for the money you have accumulated throughout your life and have the right to determine who the money is to be left to when you are gone — don’t let that fifth cousin twice removed, who you have never met, potentially receive your assets at death.

What should I do if I don’t have children or ever plan on having children? Who should my stuff be left to?
This is completely up to you. Do some research on different charities that provide services to those in need, or for a cause you feel deeply about. Consider leaving the money to a close friend or sibling. You can leave your assets to your alma mater or place of worship.  You can also do a combination, where you leave some money to a charity, some money to your university and some money to your nieces or nephews.

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Why is it bad if I’m single and don’t have any estate planning?
It’s not about good or bad, it’s just that there are many issues that can come up in a person’s life in which a lot of time, money and strife could have been avoided or saved had an estate plan been in place.

One could argue that single people have to worry about estate planning more than married couples. If you become incapacitated and are married, your spouse can step in and speak for you, as if he or she were the nominated Health Care Proxy. For single individuals who are 18 years of age or older, there is no other person, including parents, siblings, children, who can step in to make those kinds of decisions. As I mentioned in one of the previous questions, if you don’t have a Health Care Proxy or a Living Will stating your wishes, then you could be left in a position where you are not able to receive the appropriate health care that you would have wanted, or even be kept alive in a comatose and painful state.

But I’m on a budget. Are there any strategies you have for singles who need to plan estates on a budget?
If you need to start designing your estate plan piece by piece, get a Health Care Proxy first. As I mentioned before, if you are 18, you do not have someone designated to speak for you in case you are hospitalized and need medical care.

Are there specific estate planners I should turn to if I’m single rather than if I had a family? Are there further resources such as people to follow on Twitter to get more information?
Rarely do estate planning lawyers focus on a generation or marital status. I would recommend, single or married, you hire an attorney that has a practice that specifically focuses on estate planning. There are a lot of attorneys out there who claim to do estate planning, but would also gladly handle your divorce case, house closing, etc. Estate planning attorneys will be more familiar with spotting issues and have solutions for your individualized situation. As the saying goes: “Jack of all trades, master at none.”

I have an active Twitter account where I post articles regarding estate planning, legal and financial issues facing millennials, and issues related to aging. You can follow me at @MJGElderLaw.

Any final words of advice?
Just as your other plans change as your life changes, it’s okay for your estate plan to change over time. People go through many stages and events in their lifetimes, from being single, getting married, becoming a parent, getting divorced, caring for an ill or disabled relative, an event of disability, and all sorts of other issues related to aging. There is no one estate plan that can possibly factor in every conceivable life event in a person or family’s future. Create a plan for now and when your life changes, so should your estate plan.

Michael J. Greenberg, Esq. is an Estate Planning, Elder Law, and Special Needs Planning attorney at Keane & Beane, P.C. in White Plains, New York. He is on the Executive Committees of the Trusts & Estates, Elder Law and Special Needs, and Young Lawyers sections of the New York State Bar Association as well as the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). Michael received his law degree from Emory University School of Law and his undergraduate degree from Williams College. He is admitted to practice law in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Florida. You can follow Michael on Twitter @MJGElderLaw or email him at mgreenberg@kblaw.com.

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