Washington state’s laws on non-marital relationships, including committed intimate relationships (CIRs), can be convoluted, especially in the absence of a cohabitation agreement. Given the ambiguity that exists for unmarried partners in Washington state, thinking about the future and what it could look like is more important than ever. This is especially true in terms of aging, incapacity, and death. Fortunately, you can address each of these issues in a comprehensive estate plan.
Even if you have never had an estate plan before, it is never too late to create one, particularly if you are in a committed intimate relationship and want to make sure your wishes will be honored in the way you envision. With this goal in mind, here are a few vital documents as well as issues to consider to protect yourself and your loved ones, including your committed intimate partner, if you are unmarried and reside in Washington state.
In the absence of a will, Washington state’s laws dictate who will inherit your assets. This could be your spouse, children, parents, siblings, or your closest blood relative. Keep in mind that while a registered domestic partner is recognized as a spouse, a partner in a committed intimate relationship is not. For those with children below 18, a will can further specify who should take custody after your passing.
Estate planning is not solely for married couples. Long-term cohabitating couples should also consider the implications of not planning for the future. While contemplating life decisions with your partner, it is critical to determine what will happen to your assets posthumously.
Without a will, Washington’s intestate succession laws dictate how your assets will be distributed. This means your assets could end up with relatives as determined by the state, and not who you would want, or, if you do not have legal heirs, your assets could go to the state itself.
For unmarried couples cohabitating in Washington, state laws do not automatically recognize a right to your partner’s assets upon their demise. Given the intricacies of intestate laws in Washington state, particularly for non-traditional family situations, it is best to clearly specify in a will how you would prefer your assets to be allocated.
To create a scenario in which your cohabitating partner inherits from you upon your death, draft a will that expressly states your wishes regarding them in it. A Seattle estate planning attorney can help.
Durable Power of Attorney
A durable power of attorney allows your partner, even if you are unmarried, to handle your finances and pay your bills should you become incapacitated. Given that you and your partner are not married, creating a formal durable power of attorney with them as the designee is the only way to provide them with the authority they need to manage your affairs if you are not in the position to do so yourself.
Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care
A durable power of attorney for health care empowers you to designate what is known as a health care proxy. This individual can act as your representative for any medical choices not specified in the living will, including making critical decisions, such as those pertaining to end-of-life care.
Selecting the right individual to serve as your health care proxy demands a considerable level of trust, as you must rely on the person you appoint to uphold your wishes faithfully. While your partner might be your choice for this role today, circumstances can change, which is why you should revisit your estate plan with any life change, such as a separation, or in any event, every three to five years.
Sometimes referred to as a living will, an advance directive empowers you to dictate your preferences for medical treatment should you become permanently unconscious or are diagnosed with a terminal condition, including becoming reliant on life support. Within your living will, you have the authority to specify whether you wish to prolong your life through artificial means or if you would prefer a natural passing under specific circumstances.
As a partner in a committed intimate relationship, it is beneficial to include a HIPAA authorization document in your estate planning documents. A HIPAA authorization grants a trusted individual of your choosing the authority to access otherwise confidential medical information concerning you, including details like your medical history, current diagnoses, and physician recommendations.
This information can prove vital for your loved ones, especially when they are faced with making critical decisions regarding your medical care or if they hold a medical power of attorney (POA) on your behalf. Without access to your health information, they could face challenges in making informed decisions, particularly in unforeseen circumstances. An estate plan should incorporate HIPAA release language, both within the medical power of attorney and as a separate release document.
By designating a beneficiary for assets such as retirement accounts and life insurance, your assets will transfer directly to the individual(s) you name, whether or not you have a will. If you do have a will, your beneficiary designation bypasses your will anyway, meaning this piece of your estate will not be subject to probate.
For cohabitating couples who own property together, there’s an option to hold property as joint tenants with the right of survivorship. This approach to estate planning allows property to be automatically transferred to the surviving partner upon the death of the other, avoiding probate. Joint tenancy also brings other advantages, including signifying a strong commitment between partners.
Declaration of Disposition of Remains (“DDR”)
Another option for inclusion in your estate plan is a document addressing the disposition of remains in your estate plan. In Washington state, there is no automatic protocol in place for handling a person’s remains after their passing. The authority to make decisions regarding your remains lies with you during your lifetime. Therefore, if you have specific preferences for the handling of your remains, it is essential to inform your estate planning attorney.
According to Washington state law, any choices regarding the disposition of your remains must be documented in writing through a Declaration of Disposition of Remains (DDR). For the DDR to be legally valid, you must sign it in the presence of a witness, and your instructions within the document should be clear and unambiguous.
The primary purpose of a DDR is to make your wishes are readily accessible to your family either at the time of your passing or before. Including these instructions in your will can be problematic because your family may struggle to locate your will or find it too late to fulfill your wishes. Decisions regarding the disposition of remains occur well before the probate process and should, therefore, be distinct from the contents of your will.
Declaration of State Registered Domestic Partnership Form
If you plan to establish a domestic partnership with your significant other in Washington state, you must submit a Declaration of State Registered Domestic Partnership form to the state authorities. Your estate planning attorney can provide guidance and assistance in completing this filing.
Roles a Committed Intimate Partner Can Have in an Estate Plan
Apart from the documents you need to consider to protect yourself and your committed intimate partner in your estate plan, you also need to carefully consider the roles your committed intimate partner might hold. Your selection of fiduciaries for your estate plan hinges on various factors, and not all roles may be suitable for your partner.
The decision of who to appoint as a fiduciary holds significant importance within the estate planning framework. Depending on your unique estate plan, fiduciaries may be tasked with various responsibilities, such as executing a will, acting as an agent, or serving as a trustee. Both individuals and organizations can take on fiduciary roles, so there are other options besides your partner.
Additionally, within your estate plan, you might want to consider designating a guardian for minor children or any dependent adults you currently care for and anticipate continuing to support financially or otherwise. If you plan to establish a revocable or irrevocable trust as part of your estate plan, selecting a trustee is also necessary.
Your partner may be the best choice (in your mind) for one or more of these roles, or perhaps none at all. However, if you intend to assign them any of these responsibilities, it is helpful to openly discuss your intentions regarding their role before making any formal decisions. This way, your partner can have a clear understanding of what is expected and can decline the position if they so choose.
Find a Seattle Estate Planning Attorney to Create an Estate Plan Considering Your Committed Intimate Relationship
Estate planning is one of the best ways we can express love for the people in our lives, including our committed intimate partners. By giving the individuals we love and care for peace of mind, as well as ourselves, we can all be free to enjoy our days, living our lives to the fullest.
At Elise Buie Family Law, our talented team of Washington state estate planning attorneys understand how daunting and confusing creating an estate plan can be and are happy to explain the process and address any questions you might have every step of the way so that you are comfortable. We have vast experience creating estate plans for unmarried couples and those in committed intimate relationships and can help with your unique situation. Contact us in our Seattle office today.