Seniors Without Children Must Make Planning Decisions

Jackie Bedard
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Attorney, Author, and Founder of Carolina Family Estate Planning

Fewer American women are having children. That's not just anecdotal, there's evidence behind the trend. The New York Times quoted a 2013 AARP report that showed that 11.6 percent of women 80 to 84 were childless in 2010. By 2030, the number is expected to reach 16 percent. 

Fewer children bring planning repercussions. For our senior clients without any children, estate planning and end-of-life decisions can be tricky. To whom will they leave their estate? Who will make their end-of-life decisions or carry out their other final wishes? 

Get it down in writing

This issue was the topic of a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. There are two main tasks to get started, the Journal says. First senior clients need to decide what happens to their assets after they're gone. Next, they need to specify who will handle their medical and financial affairs in case of incapacitation. 

We recommend seniors without children should have a will or trust to dictate how their assets are disposed of. If they don't, various state laws can dictate who inherits the assets - a spouse first, relatives next, and possibly the state if no relatives can be found. 

If one spouse's assets are transferred by the state to a surviving spouse because there wasn't a will or trust, it could leave other family members of the deceased without anything. To prevent this, there are so-called "sweetheart" wills. In them, married clients leave everything to each other while dictating who gets what after they both die. This way their two documents can spell out what percentage each surviving relative gets, whether half each or some other percentage. 

While a joint revocable trust is one way to spell out how assets are to be distributed, a surviving spouse could change that trust at any time. To help make sure a client's wishes are followed, we sometimes recommend creating an irrevocable trust. This way, it will protect the inheritors after the second death.

Other documents

Clients also should sign power-of-attorney and health care documents that allow another person to make decisions in case of incapacitation. These papers also need to include end-of-life directives and make sure they authorize the person named to discuss the issues with healthcare professionals under medical privacy laws.

It isn't enough just to name one person and think it's taken care of. Especially in the case of older friends or relatives given these powers, it pays to have a backup or backups - preferable younger - waiting in the wings in case the original designee can't or won't continue to take on the responsibilities. 

Sometimes, the Journal says, geriatric care managers might take on the role, while other possible candidates are clergy, siblings, neighbors and cousins.

We hope this information was useful to you and helps you and your families. If you have a specific case or a question, don't hesitate to call our office at 919-443-3035.