Estate planning can be complicated enough when you don’t have a spouse. But things can get even trickier for married couples. Although you and your spouse may 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 critical estate planning decisions.
Even worse, one spouse may plunge ahead without the knowledge or approval of the other, to the eventual detriment of the family. It’s important for each spouse to clearly communicate their estate planning goals.
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 that half of what you own is your 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 tension may result when 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 generous tax law provisions that shelter most estates from tax. Incorporate estate tax minimization techniques into a coordinated plan.
Decide 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.
Indeed, clear communication is essential for married couples when developing their estate plans. Your estate planning advisor can help ensure that you and your spouse both have plans that work in harmony.