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Issue Spotting for Domestic Partners

Committed but unmarried couples should consider making the following legal documents part of their portfolio:
 
Powers Of Attorney
 
A durable power of attorney and a living will (sometimes called a "durable power of attorney for health care") will give partners the right to handle the other’s finances and health care decisions in the event of an accident or illness that leaves a partner incapacitated. This can prevent disputes with family members, who otherwise might be legally entitled to make these decisions.
 
Wills
 
Without a will, the entire estate goes to relatives, not the partner. If partners desire to devise a portion of their estates to each other, a will is required.
 
Letters of Instruction
 
A "Letter of Instruction" lays out wishes for burial or cremation and can name the partner as the person responsible for making any decisions not covered by the letter of instruction.
 
Federal Estate Tax Planning
 
A married couple can benefit from federal estate tax laws that allow them to leave unlimited assets to each other free of federal estate tax implications. Unmarried couples must plan more carefully how to allocate sizable estates.
 
Beneficiary Changes
 
A domestic partner may name his or her partner a beneficiary on many accounts, such as:
 
  • Individual retirement accounts
  • Life insurance policies
  • 401(k) accounts
  • Some stock accounts 
Beneficiary designations on these accounts override a will, so the beneficiary designations must be sufficiently set forth and must be considered in conjunction with the disposition of assets in the will.
 
Cohabitation Agreements
 
More and more unmarried couples living together are putting together contracts known as "cohabitation agreements" that outline:
 
  • How living expenses are to be split
  • Who pays the mortgage and when
  • How property will be divided if the couple splits
  • Who pays the expenses of selling the property (such as a shared house) in the event of a breakup
  • Who currently owns what property and what property will be jointly owned in the future 
The cohabitation agreement should be executed before witnesses, preferably counsel.
 
Property Titling
 
For unmarried couples, property ownership is determined strictly on the basis of how the assets are titled. Unmarried couples can convey property to themselves to be held as joint tenants with rights of survivorship or as tenants in common. Proper planning may include holding assets individually.
 
Documents Pertaining to Children
 
Unmarried couples who have children together or have children from previous relationships living with them should put each partner's name on emergency medical care forms, school pickup forms, and so forth. Otherwise, a partner may be unable to care properly for the other’s child in an emergency.
 
Retirement Planning
 
Unmarried couples don't qualify for Social Security survivor benefits or survivor benefits under more traditional pensions, so additional assets should be set aside to cover retirement plans.