Living Single: Estate Planning Advice

We hear it in the media and are likely to see it in our social circles – Americans have become less likely to marry.  There are a lot of reasons for a declining marriage rate – the younger generation is delaying a few years, cohabitation is on the rise, and divorced persons are experiencing a decrease in their tendency to remarry.  A Pittsburgh-based estate attorney I frequently work with, Claire Saenz, witnesses this growing trend in her work.  I interviewed Claire to learn about her legal work with single women.

Debbie:  What should be foremost on a single woman’s mind today when thinking about her long term well-being?

Claire:  Single women are not all the same so there’s no one thing that will be foremost for everyone.  Some are truly single—they are not partnered—while others do have a partner but aren’t married to that person.  In both situations, they lack the legal and social “buffers” of married women, but they often have different challenges. An unpartnered woman often lacks the support and economic safety net that a partner can provide, while an unmarried woman with a partner may have these things but will lack the legal safety of marriage (at the federal level alone, marriage provides 1,138 legal rights, privileges and obligations).  I do see certain issues coming up frequently, though.  For example, with younger unpartnered women, planning for the care of minor children is often front and center, and for older ones, planning for incompetency is a big concern.

Debbie:  How would you advise a woman in these two areas?

Claire:  For the risk of incompetency there is no perfect time to start planning.  If I had to give an age, I would say start planning no later than your early 60’s, though of course incompetency can happen to anyone at any time.  Planning typically involves the use of a Financial Power of Attorney, which appoints an agent to take care of financial matters, or a Revocable Trust, where a successor trustee can take over in the event of incompetency.  A single woman should also have Healthcare Power of Attorney and Living Will, in which she appoints an agent to make healthcare decisions on her behalf if she is unable, and states her wishes for end of life care.

A widowed, divorced or single woman with minor children needs to ensure the well-being of her children in the event something happens to her.  A planning strategy often begins with two building blocks – life insurance and trusts.  Life insurance will help assure the children’s financial well-being if their mother passes while they are young and trusts will provide asset management for the children until they are mature enough to handle their own assets.

Debbie: What advice do you have to give to women who cohabitate? What buffer do they need?

Claire:  Women who live with domestic life partners do not have the legal rights and protections of marriage.  Some—not all, but some—of these legal rights and protections can be created contractually outside of marriage.

For example, if the intent is leave money to the surviving partner at the death of the first partner, it is essential to create a will.  If a partner dies without a will, the state will write one for her and her probate property will go to blood relatives—not to the partner.  This means that both members of a domestic partnership need to have wills if they want to benefit the other partner at death.  This is essential.  No exceptions!

But as I said, documents can only do so much.  For example, documents can’t change the tax laws.  One example of this is the Pennsylvania inheritance tax.  While a husband and wife can pass unlimited assets to each other at death tax free, an unmarried couple is levied a 15% tax on transfers to each other.  This can’t be avoided (except by getting married) but it can be planned for.   One strategy for domestic partners is for each to have life insurance to cover taxes and also help increase the size of the estate.  Life Insurance is not subject to PA inheritance tax.

Lastly, I strongly urge women to sign a domestic partnership agreement with their partnerThis document is similar to a pre-nuptial agreement in that it directs what happens to shared property if and when the relationship terminates.

Debbie: On a lighter note, there is a dating website called  for single people who love pets.  How does a woman care for her pet in the event something happens to her?

Claire:  A pet trust is the best way to assure your pet is well taken care of after you are gone.  I do them regularly and they are not complicated.  These trusts can be created during lifetime or at death.   Under such a trust, the owner gives the pet, plus money to care for it, to a trustee.   The trustee is charged with using the money to care for the pet according to your wishes.  The trust will last until your pet dies.

Debbie:  Do you have any final thoughts you want to share?

Claire:  Yes, at the risk of sounding self-serving, I want to encourage women to seek competent legal advice when it comes to estate planning.  It is tempting to use inexpensive do-it-yourself forms from the internet.  However, proper estate planning involves so many variables, and laws differ so much from state to state, that it is truly impossible for general legal forms or programs to do the job properly—and mistakes can be expensive.

About Claire Johnson Saénz

Ms. Saénz, a co-founder of Krassenstein and Associates, concentrates her practice in the areas of estate planning and administration, franchise compliance and corporate law. In her estates practice, Ms. Saénz represents individuals with both modest and complex estates, drafting wills, trusts, powers of attorney, living wills and other planning documents as well as assisting with probate and trust administration. In her franchise practice, Ms. Saénz represents both national and local franchisors in the initial phases of franchising activity as well as with ongoing regulatory compliance. In the business area, Ms. Saénz primarily represents small and medium-sized businesses in connection with matters ranging from choice of entity, corporate compliance, relationships between shareholders and partners, acquisitions and contractual arrangements.

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