Estate Planning for Singles

Having a plan that takes care of you and your family is important for everyone, but it is especially important for single people. Simply put, for singles, there isn’t that obvious default support person to help like there is between married couples. This planning requires thoughtful consideration.

In general, my single clients want to make sure they are taken care of by the right people in situations where they need assistance, but want to ease the burden on their trusted helpers as much as possible. 

Here are some of the points I share with these clients when explaining the value in planning. Spoiler alert: it’s less about death, and more about preparing for periods of incapacity. 

Health care decision making. Did you know that under Maine law, there is a statutory priority scheme of who can make medical decisions for you if you can’t make them yourself? If you aren’t married, then the priority list looks something like this: (1) your partner; (2) adult children; (3) your parents; (4) adult siblings; and then (5) adult grandchildren. 

As you can see, there is a strong preference for a blood-relative to take on this role. For many of my clients, however, close friends or an individual sibling (rather than the whole group of siblings) are better suited for this undertaking because being a health care agent for someone involves knowing that person’s preferences for medical care, values, and beliefs. 

When it comes to family, medical decision making can be complicated because it involves the intersection of family beliefs and individual beliefs. In my experience working with clients, there isn’t always alignment in this realm: for example, the agnostic, adult child who was raised by a devout Catholic family. 

The solution here is to prepare an advance health care directive and to have meaningful conversations with your agents and your family about your care and how you want your plan to work. You choose who makes medical decisions for you (only when you can’t make them yourself) and provide guidance on how those decisions should be made.

This gives you control over the situation and an opportunity to eliminate family conflict, as in the situation where a group of people, like your siblings or parents, have equal authority under the law but can’t agree about your care. Conflict avoidance is really key and a gift to you and your family. 

Financial decision making. Likewise, without any planning, the statutory scheme under Maine law for who can make financial and residential decisions for you when you can’t make these decisions yourself is similar to the health care agent, with one big exception. This person has to seek court authority to act for you.

The court process is called guardianship and conservatorship. These are serious proceedings involving the limitation of your individual rights, court vetting of the people seeking to help you, and ongoing court supervision of your care.

Again, family may or may not be the right fit for these jobs. And even if they are, if there are multiple people who fall within a class—like parents, siblings, or adult children—there is the potential for conflict among the decisionmakers.

In any event, going through the court process to get this authority to help you is expensive, stressful, and time consuming. It can also devastate family relationships if the person needing help actively thwarts the guardianship, as it sometimes happens when the person with dementia refuses (or is unable) to acknowledge their own mental decline. 

Here is one powerful story to illustrate that last point.

This is typically the opposite experience my clients want to go through or impose on the people who care about them.

The solution here is to have a durable financial power of attorney, in addition to the health care directive, in which you choose who can manage your property and under what conditions, all outside of the court process. You also need to have meaningful conversations with your financial agent about your assets and your financial priorities. As long as you have capacity to understand the authority you are delegating, you can update and change this document so that it always reflects the people you trust and the ways in which you are willing to accept help.

In the Ada Vocino case linked above, perhaps regular discussions with her daughter about how the daughter could help Ada through a power of attorney and advance health care directive would have felt less threatening than a guardianship proceeding?

(Note, effective solutions here involve more than just documents. That’s why I work with clients on plans, not documents.)

Food for thought.

As I hope I have demonstrated, estate planning for the single person is critical for individuals who want to take steps to plan for situations when they will need help, including who the helpers are, what authority they can assume, and when, and to avoid family conflict. It’s a gift to self and to others. 

I really enjoying helping my single clients navigate these important decisions. If you are single and interested in learning how we may be able to work together, please schedule an initial consultation call with me.