Estate and Advance Care Planning for Childless Couples

Updated

Childless or childfree couples experience life outside the traditional norm and anticipating how those differences impact end-of-life and estate planning can help you customize your documents to meet your needs. 

People with children often rely on their children to take care of them in their old age in return for an inheritance. Those who know that’s not an option can make arrangements to ensure their care, appoint a decision-maker, and take the same control over the end of their lives that they enjoyed in their younger days. 

Jump ahead to these sections:

Similarly, without the responsibility to a child or grandchildren, childless people can decide how to make an impact with their leftover wealth, whether gifting it to a deserving loved one or making a change in the world through donating to charity or some combination of options.

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

In the United States, more people than ever are forgoing children, either by choice or circumstance. This translates to more Americans needing advanced care and estate plans that look beyond the traditional family structure of relying on adult children to make decisions or inherit property. 

Estate planning becomes especially important for childless people as our society often defaults care decisions and inheritance to someone’s children. Those with children have the luxury of knowing that the close legal relationship between parent and child is well-established. While procrastinating estate and care planning still aren’t ideal, their offspring can likely be acknowledged as proxy medical decision-makers and inherit through intestacy laws.

Childless adults lack this safety net, but estate and advance care planning allow them to create a customized one of their own.

Increasing childlessness in the United States and its impact on aging

The 2020 Census revealed new information about the demographics of childless adults that help us better address advanced care and estate planning topics. First, we know that more American adults reach 55 or older without having biological children than ever before. Of adults ages 55 to 64, 19.6 percent don’t have children. 

However, that percentage falls with age. A reported 15.9 percent of adults 65 to 74 don’t have children, and only 10.9 percent of Americans 75 and older are childless. 

Second, these numbers tell us that it’s increasingly common for adults to reach their later years without having children, and we should expect this population to continue to grow. So rather than being outliers, childless adults will continue to be significant portions of the population. 

In addition to impacting the circle of relatives available for care and estate distribution, childlessness in America is tied to some financial statistics that can help those without children plan for their care. 

Older adults without children are more likely to live alone than those with biological children, and they’re also more educated. As a result, they’re frequently better off financially with higher median incomes than parents during their working years and higher levels of personal wealth than older parents. 

Conversely, childless older adults are more likely to live below national poverty guidelines and to receive financial support from friends and family.

These conflicting facts show us that a one-size-fits-all estate or advance care plans won’t meet the various needs of childless couples. Some will end their lives with considerable resources for their care and to pass on, while others will struggle to meet their basic needs. 

Estate Planning Considerations for Childless Couples

Estate planning deals with establishing instructions and structuring assets to pass along ownership of your estate at your death. 

Without an estate plan, your assets pass according to your state’s laws of intestacy. If you’re married, your spouse typically inherits. Otherwise, your parents, siblings, or nieces and nephews inherit, depending on your family structure.

When thinking about your estate, it can be helpful to envision it in two parts: your probate estate and your non-probate estate.

The probate estate

Your probate estate passes at your death according to the terms of your will. If you do zero estate planning, everything you own will be in your probate estate. Depending on your state’s probate procedures and the value of your estate, your heirs might have to go to probate court to get a personal representative appointed. 

Your non-probate estate

Most people carve assets out of their probate estate over time by setting up non-probate transfers. They’re often easy for you to establish, and they can be easier for your heir to claim than dealing with the probate process because they simply need proof of your death and their identity.

The most straightforward non-probate transfers include payable-on-death or transfer-on-death designations, and the terminology varies by location and institution. You’ll typically find the option to name this type of designee on your bank and investment accounts, either when you initially open the account or through your account management platform. 

Non-probate transfers also include the designated beneficiaries for benefits that pay out at your death, like pensions and life insurance policies. These types of accounts let you name one or more beneficiaries, and the amount paid out goes directly to that designee and does not become part of your probate estate. 

Besides these relatively simple designations, non-probate transfers also come in more complicated forms. Trusts are among the most popular estate planning tools because of their flexibility and wide range of options, and even though they often go hand-in-hand with wills, they are considered a non-probate transfer. That’s because any asset held in a trust is removed from the owner’s probate estate and official trust property.

Considerations for everyone

Many options exist for distributing your estate regardless of whether you have children. For example, rather than leaving your estate to a single person, you might leave portions to your favorite charities, organizations, and causes. 

Besides naming them as beneficiaries in your will, you can also designate organizations as payable-on-death beneficiaries to your bank accounts or life insurance policy. 

While you can leave any type of asset – including real estate – to a charity, consider whether your preferred charity has the personnel and ability to handle the logistics that come with selling or managing non-liquid assets. For example, a small local organization with just a few staff members might struggle to handle an estate auction for a home filled with personal belongings. 

Considerations for childless couples who are married

Married couples, especially those married for a long time, often make wills together and intend to leave their property to each other. Regardless of whether you have children, it’s always a good idea to name a backup beneficiary if your spouse is your primary one.

First, most state probate codes require that a beneficiary survive the testator by a minimum number of hours to inherit. So, for example, if you and your spouse get seriously injured in a car accident and both die at the same time, or your spouse only lives a few hours longer than you, your secondary beneficiary inherits.

If no beneficiaries named in a will survive the testator, then courts turn to the state’s intestacy laws to find another heir. For someone without children, this could be distant or little-known relatives. 

Second, naming a secondary beneficiary can also give your will greater longevity if your spouse dies before you. If you still want the former-secondary beneficiary to inherit, you can avoid redoing your will after your spouse’s death. 

Considerations for childless couples who aren’t married

If you want to leave assets to a partner to whom you aren’t married, estate planning is crucial. Under intestacy laws that govern the inheritance of probate estates for people who don’t leave wills, only biological or adopted family members or legal spouses can inherit. 

As a result, your partner can end up with nothing or face a lengthy court battle to prove common law marriage in the states that recognize it.

Considerations for older childless couples with pets

Pets provide companionship beyond measure, and no estate plan is complete until it addresses your furry friend’s care after you pass. Few pet owners want to see their animal relegated to a shelter, especially when your pet is already confused and scared by your absence. 

Although they feel very different from your other personal belongings, state laws treat pets as personal property. As a result, you can bequeath them in your will just like you would a car or bank account. Of course, you should still talk with the recipient in advance to be sure they are willing to take on your pet. It’s not terribly common for friends and family to fight over who gets a dog or cat, but if your animal is a purebred or expensive exotic animal, there could be some conflict. 

If you have the funds, consider creating a trust to pay for your pet’s care. Besides ensuring that your pet continues to receive the level of medical care and pampering that you would give it, knowing that the animals’ care won’t be coming out of their own budget might entice your preferred beneficiary to take the pet as you hope. 

In a pet trust, you can stipulate many aspects of your pet’s care, like the type of food they eat and their accommodations. You can also add terms requiring the trustee to visit to ensure your pet receives the appropriate care. Finally, don’t forget to name a remainder beneficiary to inherit any money left at the end of your pet’s life. 

Estate Planning Checklist for Childless Couples

Most estate plans include more than one method of distributing an estate. You can pick and choose which options best suit your needs. 

  • Will: A will is a written document that provides written instructions for the distribution of your probate estate. It also nominates a personal representative to oversee that estate and to implement the instructions in the will. 
  • Trust: A trust is another way to distribute assets after your death. The trust owns the assets and then distributes them or the income from those assets according to the terms you established. A trust can last for many years and include restrictions for the distribution of your property.
  • Payable-on-death designations: Easily transfer your assets and wealth outside of probate using non-probate transfers that you set up for each account or benefits policy. Your designated beneficiary can then claim the asset after your death with just proof of your death and of their identity.

Advance Care Planning Considerations for Childless Couples

While thinking about our final days or serious injury isn’t a fun pastime, it’s an important investment in yourself and your future. Much as you take the time to take care of your health and your finances, the time you spend planning for these events helps you stay safe and comfortable. 

Advance care planning deals with setting your preferences and directions in writing and creating delegations of authority to let trusted people act on your behalf.

If you’re someone without children, these instructions and designations are especially important. These documents can speak on your behalf if you need medical care before a loved one can be found or can reach you. Additionally, they help ensure that the correct person makes decisions for you – even if they aren’t related to you – rather than just the nearest relative that the hospital or court can fine. 

Considerations for everyone

Advance care plans typically include several documents. The living will – also called an advanced directive – is the most comprehensive document that addresses your care preferences and instructions for the medical treatments you do or do not consent to. 

Most people make several additional, standalone documents as part of their advance care plans. Having separate documents for a power of attorney or do not resuscitate order can make it easier for your care providers to understand your instructions quickly. It also makes it easier for your agent – like your power of attorney – to demonstrate their authority.

After making your documents, be sure to let the relevant people know where to find them. For example, your power of attorney should either have an original version of the document or know how to access it in an emergency. 

Many hospital systems and doctors’ offices let you file your advanced care documents with them so they’re on file when the need arises. 

Finally, as you consider the type of end-of-life care that you want, consider long-term care insurance or make other financial plans to support your care. As noted by the Census Bureau, many childless adults end up in poverty in their last years. Without a child who feels a familial obligation to house you, you’ll want to have another option lined up.

Considerations for childless couples who are married

Making an advanced care plan is still a good idea, even if you’re married. It will make it easier for your spouse to get your medical information, make decisions for you, and access any financial information that’s only in your name. 

Hospitals often designate a proxy medical decision maker in emergency situations with a spouse having first priority. However, that medical document only works in true life-or-death decisions and is unique to that medical facility. Without advance care plans, spouses typically end up going to the probate court for long-term authority through a guardianship or conservatorship. Besides being an additional cost, this can be a stressful process for a spouse also dealing with your serious health condition. 

As with your estate plan, it’s a good practice to name a secondary or backup agent in the event your spouse cannot serve. While that might be hard to imagine, especially if they’re younger than you or in good health, they could be injured in the same accident as you or be unexpectedly diagnosed with a serious health condition of their own or even dementia. 

By naming a secondary agent, you remove one more risk that can stand between you and the care you want.  

Considerations for childless couples who aren’t married

Advance care planning can ensure that your partner has access to you in the hospital or other care settings and that they can make decisions or act on your behalf – if you so desire. 

An unmarried partner typically has no rights under internal hospital policies or state law. If you want them to have the protection of a spouse, consider making them your financial or medical power of attorney. 

Advance Care Planning Checklist for Childless Couples

Here are the advance care planning needs for childless couples. 

  • Living will: Your living will – also called an advanced directive – establishes the type of care you want to receive if you lose the ability to make decisions for yourself or cannot communicate your decisions. The living will can also include your directions regarding organ donation, resuscitation, and life-sustaining measures. 
  • Power of attorney: A power of attorney document lets you give decision-making authority and the ability to act on your behalf to someone else. A power of attorney remains beholden to the wishes that you express in your living will and other documents, but they can fill in the gaps where your documents are silent. A power of attorney can be for financial matters, medical issues, or both. 
  • DNR: A do not resuscitate order restricts medical personnel from giving you any form of resuscitations, like CPR. You can also include this information in your living will, but many states make specific DNR forms to make it easier for care staff to understand your preferences in an emergency situation quickly. 
  • POLST or MOLST: Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment and Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment are doctor-created instructions available in only some states. These documents allow a doctor to put specific care instructions in writing for patients with severe or terminal illnesses.
  • Long-term care insurance: If you can afford it, consider a long-term care insurance plan. These plans typically cost less when you purchase them earlier in your life. They then pay out a monthly benefit to a nursing home, in-home, or residential care. This monthly supplement can give you more care options and a less barebones experience.

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

It’s normal to have questions about this process. Here are the most frequently asked questions about estate and advance care planning for childless couples. 

How can you talk to your partner or spouse about end-of-life planning?

You can use many daily activities as a segway into end-of-life and estate planning conversations. Television shows, movies, books, the experiences of friends and family, and even your normal financial discussions all serve as good starting points. 

In addition, celebrity estate planning gossip frequently makes the national news. Look no further than the Britney Spears headlines to start a conversation about choosing a decision-maker for yourself. 

Any number of real or manufactured scenarios can help you bring up the conversation. How you continue should depend on your relationship and your partner’s communication style. If your partner prefers direct communication, you should be able to jump into your concerns and desire to set up end-of-life plans. 

If you think your partner might be more sensitive or resistant to these conversations, it can help frame them in ways that appeal to what your partner cares about – you. Address how planning makes things easier for you and your partner, and ensure that you two are taken care of and that your relationship is respected. 

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

Couples without children have the same estate planning tools at their disposal as people with children. As a result, any attorney that specializes in estate planning can be a good fit. 

When you’re trying to decide on an attorney to draft your estate plan and end-of-life documents, prioritize those that specialize in probate or estate planning law. Changes arise in these fields often, both by new laws enacted by the state legislature and through case law that comes about through court decisions. Attorneys who specialize in only estate planning and probate law are most likely to be up-to-date with these nuances. 

Most state bar associations offer online search tools to help you find attorneys within certain specialties near your location. Word-of-mouth recommendations from people you trust can also be great starting points. 

Contact their offices about scheduling a consultation if you find attorneys that seem like possible good fits. The consultation could be free or at a small set rate. Use the consultation to make sure that you feel comfortable working with the attorney – a good attorney shouldn’t leave you feeling intimidated or silly. You can also learn more about the process of working with them and what to expect regarding costs and turnaround time during the consultation.

Do I have to worry about my property going to the state if I don’t have children?

By estate planning through the creation of a will, trust, or non-probate transfers, you can prevent your property from going to the state. 

In rare situations, a person’s property passes to the state where they lived at their death. However, that only happens when they have no heirs under the state’s intestacy laws and when the deceased person didn’t leave a will naming someone to inherit their property. 

For example, when you make a will, you can name a first, second, and even a third choice to inherit. In the rare case that everyone you name dies before you, and you don’t update your will, the court uses the state’s intestacy laws to find an heir. That can include your siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousin, and the search can fan out across your family tree. 

As a result, very few people end up with their property escheating to the state. If you’re concerned about the age or health of the people you’d like to designate as beneficiaries, consider making a charity or other organization one of the backups. Something like the ASPCA likely has more longevity than most of us.

Update Your Documents to Reflect Life Changes

Anybody with a will, living trust, or other estate planning or advance care documents should periodically revisit those documents and reflect on whether changes in your life warrant amending or replacing them. 

Marriage, divorce, and the birth, death, or falling out with loved ones can all be good times to review your documents. Alternatively, if you plan to leave money to a charity or other organization, you can double-check the projects and progress of that organization, especially if you encounter concerns that their mission no longer aligns with your values.

Sources

  1. Valerio, Tayelor and Rose M. Kreider and Wan He. “No Kids, No Care? Childlessness Among Older Americans.” United States Census Bureau. 14 December 2021, www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/12/no-kids-no-care-childlessness-among-older-americans.html. 
  2. “First Ever Census Bureau Report Highlights Growing Older Childless Older Adult Population.” United States Census Bureau. 31 August 2021, www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2021/childless-older-adult-population.html. 

Icons sourced from FlatIcon.