Domestic Partners

Published in the Florida Keys newspaper, “The Keynoter”

Blended families, same-sex partners who are unable to marry legally (for now), and long-term unmarried couples all face financial planning issues nearly as complex and infuriating as marriage itself.  It is, in fact, so complicated that, rather than try to give you something that would be brimming with disclosures and disclaimers, I’m just going to give you a list of things you really ought to be talking to a financial professional about.

1) Who are the beneficiaries of your financial accounts and insurance policies?  Like a smoke alarm battery, you should check this at least once a year. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve surprised a new client by showing them that, upon their death, their retirement account or life insurance policy would go to someone they were last married to during the Clinton Administration.  Those aren’t automatically updated, and yes, if you die having forgotten to change the beneficiary from your old ex to your kids, and the ex doesn’t want to share, it can be very, very unpleasant.

2) If you’ve been meaning to get divorced, but “just haven’t gotten around to it”, put your grownup pants on and do it.   If you are legally married to someone at the time of your death, they have a claim on your assets that it’s very, very difficult to dismiss, even if you’ve lived on Big Pine and they’ve lived in Saudi Arabia for the last fifteen years.  “We broke up” has no standing in court.   Get a divorce.

3) If you have minor children, who gets the kids if something happens to you?   If you are not married to their biological parent, what is your exact legal custody arrangement?   Who, in fact, are the child(ren)’s legal parents?  If you don’t have all of the answers to all of these questions IN WRITING, talk to a lawyer.   This week.

4) Do you have shared debts, i.e. a mortgage, or credit cards in both names?  Do you have life insurance on each other?   You should.   The latter can help with the former, especially for unmarried couples, in the likely-to-be-unfavorable tax situation you will be facing, should one of you die.  And, referencing #2 above, you could be responsible for debts incurred by your legal spouse whether you were aware of them or not.

5) When you made your wills – because of course you listened to me a couple of months ago when I told you to make a will – did you explore the tax consquences of inheriting each other’s assets?  There is unlimited tax-free transfer of assets between married partners, but not between unmarried ones.   And yes, that’s same-sex or not.  Your elected representatives may care about whether or not you *can* get married, but the IRS does not.  The IRS only cares if you’re legally married.  If you’re not, whatever the reason, you have a tax problem.   Get.  Professional.  Help.

6) By the way, when you made that will, did you talk to an estate lawyer regarding powers of attorney for medical and property?   Who do you want making decisions for you if you can’t?   If you can’t express your own wishes, and you didn’t plan ahead, your unmarried partner of twenty-five years can be overruled by your mom.