A lot of people think that estate planning is only for people who are married, older than 50, have children, and are relatively wealthy. While people who are in those categories definitely should have an estate plan, in some ways, estate planning can be even more important if you’re single.

One advantage to being married is that you automatically have someone who is legally authorized to act on your behalf in many situations. If you pass away unexpectedly and have a spouse that survives you, it’s clear who is going to receive any assets that don’t have specific instructions or a joint owner attached to them: your spouse (with some exceptions for people who have kids from another relationship). It’s also clear who should speak for you in an emergency if you’re unable to speak for yourself (although the Terry Schiavo affair did raise some important issues that everyone should consider relevant to who gets to make medical decisions for a married individual).

Estate Planning for Single People: Lots of Questions to Answer

But what if you’re not married? Who would get your property? Who would make decisions for you in medical emergencies? Who would raise your kids or take care of your pets? Does the fact that you’re living with someone in a “marriage-like” relationship matter?

Whether you affirmatively plan or not, these questions will get answered… somehow. But it can be difficult to predict how they will get answered if you don’t leave any instructions. And the process for getting those answers will almost certainly require a court’s involvement, and maybe some contentiousness.

If you aren’t married, you will do your friends and family an enormous favor by properly documenting the following:

  • Who should receive your biggest assets (e.g., your house, your car, your savings accounts, and anything else with a title attached to it)?
  • Who should get to make decisions about your stuff that isn’t necessarily big or important enough to give to someone specific? This person will probably act as the personal representative of your estate.
  • Who should get to make medical decisions for you if you can’t speak for yourself? You should ensure that this person has a properly executed HIPAA authorization so that they can access your medical records and talk to your doctors. You should also ensure that they know your opinions about medical treatment (e.g., are you a strong believer in western medicine, or would you prefer an alternative approach)?
  • Who will keep your finances in shape if you are unable to do it? Again, you should ensure that this person has a properly executed power of attorney so that he or she can access your accounts and sign documents for you.
  • Do you have strong opinions about how you should be cared for in an end-of-life scenario? Would you like your doctors to use extraordinary medical treatment to keep you alive as long as possible, or are there some situations in which you would be allowed to pass away?
  • What would you like done with your body after death (e.g., burial or cremation, and final resting spot)? People tend to assume that the only thing anyone will fight about after their death is their stuff. But surviving family members sometimes have bitter fights about how a loved one should be memorialized, and where that memorial should occur.

A mistake that everyone makes, but particularly single people, is assuming that they don’t have anything worth fighting over, and that handling their affairs if they die unexpectedly or suffer a disabling injury will be straightforward. If you are making these assumptions, I urge you to do a careful and honest evaluation of everything that would need to be done if you suddenly weren’t available. In all likelihood, you are underestimating it.