With an increasing number of western adults choosing to spend their reproductive years in pursuit of careers, passions, and interests – and not buried in diapers, bottles, and college saving plans – the situation of Solo Aging has become a common theme within estate planning.
In the United States, consistently declining birth rates – combined with declining marriage and increasing divorce rates – mean that less and less of us are able to follow the ancient route of naming our own spouses and children as heirs and caretakers. Without a spouse or legal heir to name as executors, the need to outline and clarify our end-of-life wishes can become much more pressing.
What happens if we singles don’t make our wishes known in the event of our incapacitation or death? In the absence of a living trust or a will, the courts will be the ones to appoint our representative. Depending on the guidelines of the state of residence, the judge will consult an ordered list of potential candidates. At the bottom of that list – after no suitable relatives have been located – is the executor termed any other person. If “any other person” doesn’t sound like a good option for the handling of your end-of-life wishes, then you will want to have all of your ducks in a row, far ahead of time.
Choosing an Executor for Your Estate
If you are one fortunate to have gathered a large, supportive, social network during your lifetime, choosing an executor and heirs may be quite easy. It is often said that friends are the family that you choose, and, in this case, your close friends will work quite nicely as substitutes for spouses and biological children.
For those who do not have access to these types of surrogate family members, deciding upon an agency which specializes in such matters can be a viable option. A professional administrator can be appointed to execute the decisions you have specified. Depending on the complexity of your estate, a friend named as executor may need to rely on a professional, regardless, so pre-selecting a professional agency of your choice is a sound maneuver.
In either case, there are some prudent guidelines to use when deciding on who has the primary right to make decisions when it comes to your care and assets. When choosing an executor, the first step is to make sure that your wishes are clearly understood. Secondly, you will want to ensure that your appointments do not contribute to a conflict of interest. Additionally, you will want to ensure that your executor has the mental and emotional stability necessary to make consistent, fair, and accurate decisions.
Estate Planning and Advance Care
With the uncertainty of life, developing a plan for our ongoing care in the event of a debilitating condition needs to take a place while we are relatively healthy and cognitively proficient. Most of us don’t want just “any other person” deciding what we get to watch on television, and much less to be tending to our feeding and toiletry needs.
The most typical approach toward establishing ongoing care is to appoint loved ones to the task. If those in your social circle are willing and able, the burden of our daily care needs can be shared among them. A living will can establish your advance directives in these matters, and establish a hierarchy of decision making and hands-on interaction required for your care.
For those who do not have a support group with the time, freedom, and energy to tend to our growing needs for basic care – or who do not wish to place such a burden on our loved ones – planning for professional care is a viable option. A bit of research can determine which agency best fits your needs and expectations for this time period, and your agency of choice can be specified in your living will.
Managing or Settling Debt
If you leave debts behind – which is a very likely scenario in the case of long-term care during incapacitation – be mindful that the settling of these debts come from either two sources: from your estate wealth, or from your loved ones. While the latter scenario should only occur in the event that your friends have co-signed for debt documents, the former scenario means that you will have less assets to pass on to those you care about.
As a single person, your executor will be the one responsible for handling all attempts to collect on your remaining debt. These qualified debt payments will need to be made from the wealth of the estate. It is a fortunate fact that life insurance and retirement accounts can be protected from debt collectors, so ensure that you have included your loved ones as beneficiaries on these accounts.
Asset Distribution Planning
For some of us, this is the fun part of the estate planning process. We get to lovingly choose which of our precious belongings go to whom. After having accounted for outstanding debt, the remainder of our wealth can be distributed at whim. This peaceful process is only possible – of course – if our asset distributions have been legally specified before our passing.
As with the choosing of an executor, it is a good idea that all receiving parties understand, ahead of time, what you are intending to send their way. Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, things get hairy after we die. One benefit of being considered a Solo Ager is that there are no legal heirs to our estate, other than those whom we specifically name in our living trust or will. This means that the ugly fights that can occur during probate are a non-issue.
In the case that we are without individuals to whom we wish to bequeath, there is always the option of donating to charity. Take some time to contemplate what it is that you are deeply passionate about, and specify – in your will or living trust – what it is that your charity of choice is to receive from your estate planning document.