In some ways, estate planning for a single person can be more challenging for an estate planning attorney than planning for a couple. When a couple puts together an estate plan, the easiest and most natural thing to do is to entrust one another with all of the fiduciary responsibilities in the event of one spouse’s disability or death. Among these responsibilities are the execution of each other’s health care proxy, power of attorney, access to medical records in end-of-life scenarios and the administration of the estate.
The ease in dealing with these issues for couples is that the surviving spouse is most often the closest emotionally and geographically to the deceased and their assets. Spouses are uniquely qualified to speak for each other, because over the years they hopefully have had discussions concerning end-of-life scenarios with each other. Moreover, the surviving spouse is more likely to have been included in the financial decision making throughout the marriage, making the surviving spouse the best person to continue making the financial decisions beyond the marriage.
Those who never married and those who have been widowed do not have the luxury of entrusting emergency or end-of-life responsibilities to their spouse. These responsibilities typically fall to other members of the immediate family, such as children or siblings. In my experience, if there are children, the burden of these responsibilities tends to fall on the daughter. If not her, then the child in closest physical proximity to the surviving parent. Hopefully that child has had discussions with both parents and knows their wishes, no matter which one ends up the surviving parent.
Siblings and other family members are often less knowledgeable about one’s financial and medical wishes than a spouse or adult child might be. Therefore, a single person who is planning for his/her estate should make sure that any fiduciary responsibilities entrusted to a relative are clearly spelled out in the appropriate documentation. Medical emergencies and end-of-life scenarios are emotional times in which people must often make quick and decisive decisions. This is most easily achieved when there has been discussions between the planner and the person whom he or she is entrusting these decisions, along with a clear delegation of authority backed by the proper legal paperwork.
On that note, single people should bear in mind that the best people to entrust with medical responsibilities are often within relatively close geographic proximity. It makes little sense for a New Yorker to entrust the authority in a health care proxy to a relative living somewhere far, such as San Diego. People given financial responsibilities usually do not require that same proximity with the use of computers, overnight mail and the telephone.
Younger single people have even more estate planning considerations to think about. One such consideration is the unavailability of supplemental sources of income in case of disease, disability, or incapacity. Singles should consider these possibilities in their estate planning efforts. Those who are still working should ensure that they are covered by sufficient disability insurance, either privately or through their work. As single people get older, they should also consider purchasing long term care insurance to supplement any health insurance they may have. Long term care insurance typically covers expenses incurred in things like nursing home or hospice care that are typically not covered by normal health insurance coverage.
But of all things a single person needs to do, the most important is to talk to the people who are getting these fiduciary responsibilities. Make sure they not only understand your feelings and desires, but totally agree with them. This holds true for both medical and financial decisions. If they’re not on board, maybe you need to find someone else.