Estate planning is very important for childless couples, because the risks involved in doing nothing are great. A childless couple who create no plan may risk disinheriting one spouse's family as a result of intestacy laws. Failing to plan thoroughly may also create a situation where, if you need another person to make medical or financial decisions for you, a very costly probate court proceeding may be required.
Much of estate planning, in many cases, involves leaving a legacy for one's immediate descendants: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so forth. But today, as people live longer lives and also have smaller families, the scenario of a married couple with no children occurs increasingly frequently. Maybe your children predeceased you with no children of their own, or maybe you and your spouse have no children. In either event, couples in this situation still have very important planning needs that require a carefully thought out plan.
Couples in this situation should be keenly aware of the risk posed by doing nothing. The rules of inheritance enshrined in state law, known as the “intestacy laws,” will govern what happens to your assets if you do nothing. In many states, this could mean that the surviving spouse inherits everything owned by the spouse who dies first, and then all of both spouses' assets are distributed, upon the death of the second spouse, to the relatives of that second-to-die spouse, leaving the family of the first-to-die spouse receiving nothing. One possible method for avoiding this situation is creating a joint living trust. With a properly funded living trust, the wealth of both spouses is held in trust for the couple, managed by the couple and then, after the death of both spouses, distributed to those loved ones chosen by both spouses.
Additionally, if you as a couple have relatives but do not wish to leave your assets to them, but rather to distribute your wealth to friends or charities, a plan is extremely important in this circumstance, too. If, for example, you've both agreed that you will leave all your collective wealth to the ASPCA when you die, each of your can create matching wills that establish that distribution. You can also use a living trust to accomplish this objective.
Another element of your plan that childless couples must consider is their powers of attorney and living wills. For many people, deciding who will be their surrogate decision-makers can be fairly straight-forward. They may name their spouse as the primary agent, with one or more children as alternate agents. For a married person with no children, he/she may name his/her spouse as the primary agent, but thorough planning also typically includes naming one or more secondary agents in the event your spouse is deceased, incapacitated or otherwise not able to do this task. It is often helpful if the individuals serving as secondary agents are younger than you. If you become ill or incapacitated and need someone else to make financial or healthcare decisions for you, and all of your agents named in your plan are deceased or incapacitated, a probate court proceeding may be necessary, which can cost thousands of dollars.