Estate and Advance Care Planning for Childless Seniors

Updated

At different stages of your life, you have different estate planning needs. If you’re a childless senior, you’ll need to give additional considerations to what happens to your assets and medical wishes in case of emergency. 

In most cases, as you age, your adult children take on the primary caretaker and decision making role. However, what happens if you don’t have children? For these individuals, estate planning and advance care planning needs to begin sooner rather than later. 

Known as the “elder orphan” population, there’s a rising number of childless seniors today across North America. In this guide, an attorney guides you through the specific things you need to keep in mind when estate and advance care planning as a childless senior. Additionally, download the free checklist to make sure you’re ready to begin with confidence. 

Why Is Estate Planning and Advance Care Planning Important for Childless Seniors?

First, why is estate planning and advance care planning so important for aging adults without children? What happens to your things later in life, and who makes decisions on your behalf? Making these decisions early on while you still have full cognitive and physical abilities makes sure you’re accounted for no matter what the future brings. 

In the case that you pass without an estate plan, state intestacy laws pass along your wealth and assets to your spouse or biological relatives, regardless of whether you were close to them. While this might be okay in some cases, it’s important to feel in control. 

Estate planning takes many forms, including writing a will, making a trust, and designating payable-on-death beneficiaries for accounts and other assets. This also extends to advance care planning. Advance care planning refers to all the medical decisions you may or may not be able to make for yourself as you age or face emergencies. 

When a patient is unmarried, hospitals typically rely on the closest available biological family member for medical decision-making in emergencies. Unfortunately, this is true even if you haven’t talked with them in decades. Estate and advance care planning allow you to create custom instructions to give your estate and assign decision-making to the people and causes most important to you and that you trust.

Estate Planning Considerations for Childless Seniors

With that in mind, what are unique considerations for childless seniors? As we explained above, estate planning lets you shape the legacy you leave behind. It can honor relationships or important causes you value rather than simply passing your estate to your closest biological relative(s).

If you do nothing, the intestacy laws of every state direct intestate inheritance to legal spouses or biological family members. If your own parents are still alive, they inherit part of your estate under some state’s intestacy laws, even if you’re married. This could leave your spouse without adequate support for their old age.

Married seniors without children can draft their documents to include backup plans if their spouse dies or becomes incapacitated before them. This increases the longevity of your documents and can help plan for worst-case scenarios where you’re injured together, like in a car accident. 

To sum things up, estate planning considerations for childless seniors include:

  • Determining the people, relationships, and causes you care about
  • Creating a plan that includes your spouse or partner
  • Deciding on an alternative plan in case your beneficiary passes with you or before you

Estate Planning Checklist for Childless Seniors

Because this easily becomes overwhelming, here's a simple breakdown of your estate planning checklist:

Healthcare and medical

  • Healthcare power of attorney
  • Living will
  • POLST or MOLST
  • Designation of guardian (if you're married, you might need to nominate a backup guardian. Remember, guardians aren't just for children. They can also be named for pets, special needs children, and so on...)
  • Organ or tissue donation
  • Medical contacts and history

Financial and legal

  • Durable financial power of attorney
  • A will and testament (or trust)
  • Location of documents
  • Contact information
  • List of assets and debts

Digital legacy

  • List of email accounts
  • Digital account access (through LastPass or another password tool)
  • Photos and files
  • Social media accounts
  • Delete unused accounts

Legacy items

  • Physical gravemarker 
  • Messages and stories
  • Ethical will
  • Special wishes
  • Written obituary

Funeral plan

  • Funeral details
  • Cremation, burial, or donation decision
  • Casket or urn
  • Location
  • Planners and speakers
  • Prepaid arrangements

Frequently Asked Questions: Estate and Advance Care Planning for Childless Seniors

While approaching end-of-life planning as someone without a child might feel like being an outlier in a world of nuclear families, know that the percentage of older Americans without biological children continues to grow with each generation. 

How can you talk to a childless loved one about estate and advance care planning?

To begin, try letting your loved one know that you’re worried about whether someone who knows them well and knows their wishes will be making decisions and caring for them. They may not realize that internal hospital policies and state laws could delegate that job to someone they barely know simply because they’re related.

If you think that you’re the person who wants to be their power of attorney, personal representative, or other decision-maker, explain that having their wishes in writing will make your job easier. Anyone who has ever had to make hard medical decisions, even for a pet, has a persuasive argument for how much peace of mind written instructions can make for everyone involved. 

Remember that people who might inherit sometimes want more information in advance. While the prospect of a windfall can be exciting, remember that people can change their will at any time. It’s better to treat any inheritance as a lucky surprise rather than relying on it.

How do you find an attorney that specializes in estate planning for childless seniors?

Any probate attorney that specializes in estate planning should be adept at helping those without children make a custom estate plan. If you don’t have any word-of-mouth recommendations for estate planning attorneys from people you trust, check your state’s bar association website. They usually feature search tools to help the public find attorneys based on geographic area and specialty. 

When talking to an attorney during your initial consultation, you can confirm their comfort level working with people without children. This is an increasingly common area, so don’t feel uncomfortable bringing this up.

Plan Ahead for a Confident Future

As a senior without children for any reason, you have to begin estate and advance care planning as soon as possible. There’s no such thing as “too early” to start your plan. By getting your documents together, you gain the confidence of knowing that you’re ready for anything. 

Again, you don’t have to take these next steps alone. Let our free checklist be your guide. We’re here for you every step of the way. 

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