Estate planning is something many people put off as long as possible, which is understandable because it's not something anyone wants to think about. Resolving your estate plan is equally important, if not more so, when you're single or newly single: if you haven't prepared for the possibility that you could become incapacitated—or worse—no one will know what you want to do with your estate. That leaves the door open for unpleasant scenarios, such as having undesirable people raising your children or the state inheriting your assets.
Estate planning for singles
No matter what your age or marital status, there are several legal documents you should have. Estate planning is important for singles of any age, even if you don't have children. If something unexpected happens, you might want your partner or a close trusted friend to take care of you. Hopefully, you won't ever need someone to make an end-of-life decision, but if you do, you'll want someone trustworthy and who knows your wishes to determine what's best for you.
When married couples do estate planning, usually they leave their estate to each other. As a single person, you don't have that option unless you specifically name your partner in legal documents.
Legal documents needed for estate planning
Every estate is different, and attorneys often advise clients to update their estate planning documents when there's a major change in their lives, such as a divorce, the death of someone named in a will, or if you're no longer friendly with someone you chose as your executor or guardian.
You may want some or all the following documents as part of your estate plan. But if you don't have any legal documents to protect your estate, you'll be declared intestate after you pass, which means state law will determine what happens to your possessions.
1. Durable power of attorney. This document gives someone you name as your agent the right to act on your, the principal's, behalf. Some powers of attorney (POAs) give your agent the right to act immediately in your place, while others, called springing POAs, don't take effect until a doctor declares you incapable of making your own decisions. Most durable POAs allow the agent to manage your finances, as well as any other responsibilities you explicitly include. A POA ends upon the principal's death.
2. Healthcare power of attorney. A healthcare POA allows someone to make decisions about your medical treatment and to decide what type of care is in your best interest. This type of POA usually takes effect when you're unable to competently make decisions about your treatment. This is different from a living will.
3. Living will. This legal document, also called an advanced directive or healthcare proxy, is just as important as the preceding documents, as it prevents families from fighting over what to do if you're critically ill and can't make your own decisions about using life-support measures. Young single people often don't have a living will in place because they don't believe they need it until they're older. However, a 1975 case involving 21-year-old Karen Ann Quinlan thrust the right-to-die issue into the public eye and has been a leading case for end-of-life decisions.
4. Last will and testament. A last will and testament is part of an estate planning strategy for everyone—young or old, single or married. Some of the most important provisions of your will are who you designate as the executor, who will be the guardian of your children, who will take your pets, and who your beneficiaries are and what assets they will inherit. Make sure your executor is someone you trust to follow the will.
5. Living trust. Sometimes living trusts are important, especially if you don't want your beneficiaries to wait for your assets, because the assets in a trust don't go through probate. Having a living trust is helpful when you have children, as you can leave assets in the trust until they reach an age that you predetermine. Like choosing an executor and a guardian for your children, make sure you have faith in the trustee to properly manage the trust.
Because of the complexity involved in estate planning, it's best if you consult an attorney specialized in such matters. Doing so will give you peace of mind that no matter what your age or marital status, your assets and well-being will be protected according to your wishes.