More Americans that ever are enjoying the rights and benefits that come with marriage now that same-gender marriage is legal in all 50 states, and estate planning is one arena where these new rights and benefits are readily apparent. With marriage equality, same-gender couples no longer need to pay exorbitant amounts of money for creative estate planning workarounds just to achieve similar protections offered to opposite-gender couples. However, same-gender couples will continue to face unique planning challenges.
Unsupportive relatives who oppose the validity of your marriage may attempt to sabotage the estate plans of same-gender couples. This could mean that family members are more likely to contest your wishes, or it might entail custody battles over non-biological children in the event of the biological parent’s death. Unsupportive family members may even try to block the ability of your spouse to make medical decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated by accident or illness.
While the planning vehicles available to same-gender and opposite-gender married couples are generally the same, there are a few unique considerations those in same-gender marriages ought to be aware of to keep them from being vulnerable to these sorts of disputes. Here are three of the most important things to keep in mind.
Relying solely on a will is risky: For a number of reasons, putting a trust in place, rather than relying solely on will, is a good planning strategy for nearly everyone. Upon the death of one spouse, a will is required to go through the often long, costly, and conflict-ridden court process known as probate, and if a family member doesn’t support same-gender marriage, they’re more likely to contest your will during probate, especially if that family member would’ve received a substantially larger inheritance in a previous will prepared before the marriage.
If your will is successfully contested, this could prevent your surviving spouse from receiving assets you left them in your will and even if the contest ultimately fails, the process of defending the will’s validity in court can be extremely time-consuming, costly, and emotionally draining for your surviving spouse.
A trust avoids probate altogether while also providing protection in both your death and incapacity, whereas a will only goes into effect upon your death.
Don’t neglect to plan for incapacity: Estate planning also provides for your potential incapacity. Should you be incapacitated by illness or injury, it’s not guaranteed that your spouse would have the ultimate legal authority to make key decisions about your medical treatment and finances without a proactive planning.
Absent a plan for incapacity, it’s left to the court to appoint the person who will make these decisions for you. Though spouses are typically given priority, this isn’t always the case, especially if unsupportive family members challenge the issue in court. To ensure your spouse has the authority to make decisions for you, you must grant him or her medical power of attorney and financial power of attorney to avoid court and thus an opening for contention.
Medical power of attorney gives your spouse the authority to make health-care decisions for you if you’re incapacitated and unable to do so yourself. By the same token, financial power of attorney gives your spouse the authority to manage your financial affairs. You can also include a living will in your plan so that your spouse will know exactly how you want your medical care managed in the event of your incapacity.
Ensure parental rights are protected: While the biological parent of a child in a same-gender marriage is automatically granted parental rights, the non-biological spouse/parent still faces a number of legal complications. Because the Supreme Court has yet to rule on the parental rights of non-biological spouses/parents in a same-gender marriage, there is a tangled and often-contradictory web of state laws governing such rights.
To ensure the full rights of a non-biological parent, many legal experts advise same-gender couples to undergo second-parent adoption. However, in many states it can become a lengthy ordeal for same-gender couples to adopt—some states even permit employees of state-licensed adoption agencies to refuse to grant an adoption if doing so violates their religious beliefs.
To overcome this, your Personal Family Lawyer® can provide non-biological, same-gender parents with nearly all parental rights without going through adoption using a variety of unique planning strategies. With our Kids Protection Plan®, couples can name the non-biological parent as the child’s legal guardian, both for the short-term and the long-term, while excluding anyone the biological parent thinks may challenge their wishes. In this way, if the biological parent becomes incapacitated or dies, their wishes are clearly stated so the court can do what the parent would’ve wanted and keep the child in the non-biological parent’s care.
Beyond that, there are several other planning tools we can use to offer the non-biological parent additional rights. One such tool is a co-parenting agreement. This is a legally binding arrangement that stipulates exactly how the child will be raised, what responsibility each spouse has toward the child, and what kind of rights would exist if the couple splits or goes through a divorce.
Experience you can trust
With all f this in mind, you can see that it’s crucial that married, same-gender couples — especially those with children — always work with experienced planning professionals and avoid using generic online documents. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we have extensive experience creating plans specifically designed to prevent your plan from being challenged in court by family members who disagree with your relationship.
What’s more, our specialized planning services can help ensure that non-biological parents in same-gender marriages have as many parental rights as possible, without resorting to second-parent adoption. Contact a Personal Family Lawyer® today to get started with a Family Wealth Planning Session.
This article is a service of Levi Alexander, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.