Estate planning without spouse or children can get complicated

When a person dies, his or her possessions usually pass to the spouse or children. However, when someone with no immediate family dies, the process can become complicated.

Stephen Rudolph, president of HW Financial Advisors in Cleveland; Barbara Bellin Janovitz, estate planning chair at Reminger Attorneys at Law in Cleveland; and Linda Delacourt Summers, member of the estate planning council at Ulmer & Berne in Cleveland, all said many things must be considered when planning an estate.

“In this case, I see people without a spouse or child name charities (in their will),” Rudolph said. “They want money to go to the causes they deeply care about. That can be done either through state documents at death or depending on their wealth, they can set up a fund.”

Rudolph said it’s important to consider life planning and estate planning hand-in-hand.

“Life planning is also involved, depending on ages and where they are at in life,” he said. “If you don’t have an estate plan because you figure you don’t need one because you don’t have dependents or spouses, it could end up going to their parents. And sometimes, they could be the last people that would need the money.”

A significant other could be listed as a beneficiary, but Rudolph said that could be risky – especially when there is no legal commitment to them.

“Depending on the relationship, you could break up and forget to change the will,” he said. “And suddenly, they are getting everything out of the estate.”

Janovitz said estate planning could prove to be more important for those who don’t have children.

“If you don’t have an estate plan, the estate will come up with one for you,” she said. “And that’s usually not what you want. Your items would go to your next of kin and family members. You don’t want the court or state to do that work for you.”

Janovitz said a person should control what happens to the property.

“The key is that you want to make all of the same decisions, whether or not you’re married,” she said. “You don’t want to leave (your estate) up to chance. You’re the maker of your own destiny.”

Janovitz said a list of potential inheritors could be large and less obvious and when one is married, children probably would be the beneficiaries.

“If you’re single, and have no children, the world is your oyster in terms of who you want to designate to,” she said. “You could leave property to a close friends or even to charity. But those decisions tend to be more difficult when you don’t have someone ‘cut and dry’ to leave it to.”

Summers said when someone has no immediate family, it “opens up a different dynamic in estate planning because they are not confined by the social norm of leaving assets to a spouse or child.”

Summers said this is when charities are heavily considered in the estate planning process, along with other family members that aren’t necessarily immediate. “The single individual has to think of the broader spectrum of people in their lives that may be better equipped to fill important roles,” she said. “You need to leave behind a road map so those people have an understanding of what it is you want.”

Summer said the right questions must be asked when estate planning.

“You have to think about who would be best equipped to serve in those important roles,” she said. “They have to think about different plans because no one ever knows what the future holds for us. It’s an open-ended question in a way.

“It’s a gift to do estate planning, because it takes the weight off their shoulders and provides answers to questions they may ask, before they ask them.”