In the 21st century, most of the issues surrounding equality of the sexes have been resolved. Women are no longer relegated solely to the role of housewife and mother and the younger generations generally accept the idea of gender equality without giving it much thought. Equality, however, does not preclude differences. One area where it is important for women to recognize those differences is in the area of estate planning. Unfortunately, old beliefs and myths sometimes die hard.
The Importance of Estate Planning for Women
The reality is that estate planning issues often affect women more profoundly. The primary reason for this is, women are likely to have the final say when it comes to passing down the family wealth. Why? Because they are likely to live longer. A longer average life expectancy, coupled with the fact that women tend to marry men who are slightly older, means women are three times more likely to be a widow at age 65 than their male counterparts. Statistically speaking, this should make women more likely to be actively involved in estate planning. Despite this, several estate planning myths persist that, in reality, make women less likely to pursue estate planning.
Myth #1 – I’m Too Young to Worry about Estate Planning
The truth is you are never too young to start estate planning. For a woman, the need to start planning early is particularly strong for several reasons. To begin with, a comprehensive estate plan does more than simply create a blueprint for the distribution of assets after your death. When properly drafted, your estate plan should also plan for the possibility of your own incapacity or that of a spouse, help protect and grow your assets while you are alive, and ensure those assets provide for you during your retirement years. In addition, your estate plan allows you to nominate a guardian for your minor children and plan for their care and maintenance should anything happen to you. Finally, given the fact that the average age a woman is widowed is 56 years old, you should have a comprehensive estate plan in place well before then to provide for you during your later years.
Myth #2 – My Estate Isn’t Valuable Enough to Warrant an Estate Plan
This explanation for the lack of an estate plan was once much more widely used in years past because when a woman married, legal ownership of most assets would be held in the husband’s name only. Consequently, women did not feel the need to take part in estate planning because they did not legally own much. Today it is the norm for a married couple to hold title to assets jointly. The current value of those assets should not dictate your need for an estate plan.
Although the need for estate planning may intensify as your estate grows, you do not need to have amassed a fortune to warrant creating an estate plan. In fact, the value of your estate assets are only one of many considerations when creating an estate plan. Because your estate can grow rapidly, proper estate planning should be done early on, before that growth occurs to ensure your growing estate is protected. For example, you may be surprised to see how quickly you may amass an estate that is subject to federal and/or state gift and estate taxes. You may also find that you, or your spouse, suddenly need to qualify for Medicaid to help cover long-term care expenses; however, if you failed to plan for that possibility the hard-earned assets you have amassed could be at risk because of the need to qualify for benefits. The ideal time to start estate planning is before you have built up the family wealth, not after.
Myth #3 – My Spouse and I Hold Property Jointly So I Don’t Need to Worry about Estate Planning
Holding title to real property jointly with rights of survivorship can be a reasonable estate planning tool in some situations. However, it certainly does not limit the need for a comprehensive estate plan. The benefit of holding property as such is that upon the
death of one spouse, that spouse’s interest in the property automatically transfers to the surviving spouse without the need to pass through probate.
Not all assets can be held jointly with rights of survivorship. For those assets, other estate planning tools and strategies are needed if the goal is to avoid probate. In addition, titling assets jointly does not address the possibility that you or your spouse could become incapacitated. To cover that possibility, you need to include an incapacity planning component in your estate plan.
Estate Planning for Women in the 21st Century
As a woman, the need to have a well thought out estate plan in place has never been greater than it is now. Not only are you more likely to be an equal income partner should you choose to get married, but you are also more likely to have amassed considerable estate assets on your own prior to the decision to marry. It only makes sense, therefore, that you should have equal input regarding how the marital assets are spent, saved, and distributed. Looking into the future, there is a very good chance you will have the final say when it comes to spending and/or passing down the family wealth. Consequently, the terms of your estate plan will likely be even more important than you may realize. The time to get started with that plan is now. The way to get started is by contacting an experienced estate planning attorney in your area.
Written By: The American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys