The traditional plan itself usually consists of each spouse leaving money to the other (occasionally in trust for tax planning purposes). On the death of the surviving spouse, everything is left to the children. The surviving spouse is usually executor and trustee of any trusts. If a traditional couple does not create a Will, the state's intestacy scheme will send the money in the same direction - but without any trust or tax planning.
There are typically three types of couples that need planning significantly different from that of traditional couples:
- Same Sex Couples
- Couples where at least one party has children from a previous relationship (often called "Blended Families"); and
- Couples who are in a long term hetero-sexual relationship but are not legally married.
The laws for same sex couples vary widely by state, and the federal government does not recognized the validity of a same sex marriages or civil unions for tax purposes or for most other purposes. If one partner dies without a Will, in most states, the state intestacy law will not direct that the money goes to the surviving partner. Additionally, in many states, the partner will have no rights to administer their loved one's estate or act as a guardian absent written instruction.
Since state law will usually not protect the rights of same sex couples, it is imperative for gay and lesbian couples to prepare a Will, Power of Attorney and Health Care Directive. Additionally, trust and tax planning becomes even more important as does coordination of the couple's other assets. This is particularly true if there are children involved.
Even in states where the law is favorable, same sex couples must plan to minimize the federal estate tax, as the unlimited marital deduction only applies to heterosexual couples. Planning must also be done to minimize state estate taxes and state inheritance taxes if the couple is thinking about moving to another jurisdiction.
For Blended Families, many of the traditional planning techniques do not work because the goal is not always to provide for the spouse first and then for the children. Special planning is needed to ensure that both the needs of the surviving spouse and children from the prior relationship are addressed. This often involves setting up irrevocable life insurance trusts or segregating assets.
For couples who are in a long term relationship but are not legally married, planning is often a sore point. Legally, such couples are pretty much in the same boat as same sex couples unless they living a jurisdiction that has common law marriage. If no planning is done, the surviving partner gets completely cut out.
Ignoring the issue not only leads to litigation, but a more expensive estate administration process and higher taxes. If you are in a non-traditional relationship, I strongly recommend seeing a competent estate planning attorney in a jurisdiction near you to flush out all the issues that affect you.