Talking to Your Spouse or Partner About Estate Planning

November 28, 2023
Watercolor painting of senior couple sitting on park bench by lake.

Comprehensive estate planning requires careful thought and conversation with your spouse or life partner. Before meeting with an estate planning attorney, it is best to discuss your ideas to present a united goal.

This conversation can be challenging. You and your partner may have different points of view about your future and the legacy you plan to leave behind.

Suppose you have a blended family; how do you decide together to provide for them? Take your time as you navigate such emotional topics as your mortality and fairness to your children. You and your partner may have a great deal to process.

First, you must decide what elements in an estate plan are most important to you. Once you have a clear idea, you can readily communicate your needs and identify avenues of compromise. At the start of your discussion, state some clear objectives to promote a positive and productive conversation.

Estate Planning for Children in Blended Families

According to research, almost 30 percent of Americans had stepfamily members as of 2019. Couples belonging to blended families may find it challenging to agree on decisions regarding who will inherit their assets.

As a couple, first consider the bigger picture for your estate plan, and then work together to flesh out further details. This can help minimize potential points of tension.

Certainly, there will be back and forth as you craft your ideas and negotiate priorities. Even if you don’t agree on everything, you can discuss why certain elements are crucial to you. Openly discuss your point of view until you reach a compromise.

Estate planning for blended families is key to a smooth inheritance process. Probate rules and intestate succession law often do not treat stepchildren and biological children the same when it comes to inheriting. Open communication about your estate plan can prove just as helpful in managing heirs' expectations.

Trying to be equitable among your heirs can be tricky. Relying on your spouse and children to work things out after you are gone is not a good plan. To create a solid plan, carve out some quiet time and identify your most important estate planning goals, including distributions of all assets.

Consider the realities that could pose problems down the road, as unfortunate as they may seem.

For example, a biological parent and a stepparent might opt to execute their wills together. At the time, they agree to leave the estate to each other. What if the surviving spouse then modifies their will upon the death of their partner? They may choose to exclude the stepchildren.

Biological siblings also may feel differently about a stepchild inheriting what they perceive as theirs as a natural heir. If the original will left equal shares to biological children and stepchildren, a stepchild could seek to contest the most recent will.

A Partner’s Right of Survivorship

Rights of survivorship will not automatically go to an unmarried partner. Because of this, it is critical to create an estate plan that specifically addresses how to provide for your loved one. (Read more about the ins and outs of estate planning for unmarried partners.)

Holding your home as joint tenants may give the surviving partner full ownership of the property. Complications can arise, however, so be sure to consult with an attorney on any plans for jointly owned assets. (To learn more about some of the common ways to hold title to real estate, refer to this article.)

Some payable on death accounts will pass outside probate, and so payments will go directly to the surviving partner. This is the case with IRAs and 401(k)s as well, accounts for which you name a certain individual to inherit the asset.

If you had not prepared a will and other estate plans, your surviving partner could encounter difficulties. Someone may contest your will, and your partner might not have any legal rights to automatic inheritance.

Setting the Stage for Your Talk

Choosing the right time and place for a serious conversation can lead to a positive discussion. The best circumstances for a talk are different for each couple. Be sure you aren’t amid unfinished chores or lots of activity that can sidetrack your estate planning intentions.

In some cases, your partner may seem resistant to planning for the future. Explain why you believe estate planning is a crucial step in protecting yourselves and your family.

Take some general notes and stay open to your partner’s or spouse’s perspective. Do your best to avoid being judgmental. If the meeting begins to focus on how you disagree, take a break. Give yourself some time to reflect on those issues and revisit the topics when frustration levels are lower.

A qualified estate planning attorney will understand the best way to structure your estate. They are also a neutral third party and so may be able to help resolve some sticking points later. Continue to focus on the areas where you can agree.

Responsible Estate Planning Takes Time

You will need to craft a will, power of attorney, living will, and health care proxy. Some couples will require trusts and insurance policies as part of their estate plan.

Your estate plan will cover asset preservation, management, and distribution after you die. In your plan, you can identify those individuals who will act on your behalf to close your estate properly. If for some reason you become unable to handle your own affairs, a well-crafted estate plan will also make your intentions clear. The people acting in your stead will be able to understand the extent of your properties, financial obligations, and medical wishes.

If you already have an estate plan in place, don’t forget the importance of reviewing your documents. You should do this every couple of years or when family circumstances change surrounding births, deaths, marriage, and divorce. If there are substantial financial changes, it is also wise to review how you plan to address these ups and downs.

Reach Out to an Estate Planning Attorney

It can be uncomfortable for some couples to broach the weighty topic of estate planning. However, having these conversations is a crucial step toward securing your future together and your family’s legacy. Approach conversations with a positive attitude and problem-solving spirit.

Invite an experienced estate planning attorney to review and guide your process. These professionals can help ensure your estate plan is best suited to your unique life circumstances and wishes.

In addition, you may benefit from reading the following articles on estate planning: