Famed actor Ray Liotta’s fiancee, Jacy Nittolo, shared a touching tribute to the movie star after his sudden death May 26. However, because the couple was still unmarried, she likely will not get to share his estimated $14 million estate. It is a lesson worth noting for all unmarried couples – you need to create a proper estate plan to make sure your sweetheart is protected when you pass away.
By all accounts, Liotta and Nittolo were meant for each other. Celebrated for tough-guy roles in movies like Goodfellas and Something Wild, Liotta, in real life, was said to be more like the kind-hearted characters he played in Field of Dreams and Dominick and Eugene. Nittolo fell for him soon after his daughter, Karsen Liotta, introduced them. Though they reportedly were headed to the altar, they had not been together long enough for California’s community property laws to protect Nittolo’s interest in her fiance’s estate.
Florida offers no such protection no matter how long partners have been together…or lived together. It is critical for couples in this state who spend their lives together to make estate planning a priority. If you are one of the many couples who have chosen not to get married but to live together as committed partners, it is even more important to set up a plan for when one of you passes away or becomes mentally or physically incapacitated.
This should not only include the inheritance of financial assets like money and real estate. A proper estate plan will also give each of you the power to make important financial and healthcare decisions if the other person is very ill or incapacitated.
Here are six essential ways unmarried couples can protect themselves legally and financially with the help of a good estate planning attorney:
- Joint real estate property. If one of you owns a home or any other real estate, make sure it is in both of your names and owned as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. This last part is crucial. A joint tenancy with right of survivorship states that when one joint tenant passes away, their interest in the property automatically passes to the survivor joint tenant (to the surviving partner’s name) by operation of law with no paperwork or probate (court-supervised inheritance process) required.
- Name each other as beneficiaries on financial accounts such as bank accounts, stock accounts, life insurance policies, retirement plans, etc. Upon one’s death, all their interests in these financial accounts will be distributed to the beneficiary named on the account.
- Create a document called a “Durable Power of Attorney” for each of you. If one cannot make their own legal or financial decisions or handle such transactions due to extremely poor health or incapacity, the other will be granted authority to handle your legal or financial matters.
- Set up a “Living Will” and “Healthcare Proxy” a.k.a. “Designation of Health Care Surrogate” for each of you. If one cannot make their medical decisions due to extremely poor health or incapacity, the other will be granted authority to decide healthcare decisions such as obtaining medical records, giving permission for medical procedures, obtaining a second physician’s opinion, etc.
- Include each other in your Last Will and Testament (“Will”). You can name your beneficiaries, the guardians for any minor children, and the Personal Representative who will execute the terms of the Will. Partners should consider naming each other as Personal Representatives and beneficiaries, otherwise immediate family members of the decedent will get priority over the surviving partner.
- Establish a Revocable Trust. For unmarried partners, this can be done by creating one joint Revocable Trust or each partner creating their own Trust. A Trust will help to bypass the probate process, which is a lengthy court-supervised process required to distribute assets (where there is no Trust in place). If you own real estate, speak to an estate planning attorney to understand the huge benefits of having a Revocable Trust.
A marriage certificate cannot protect your love, but it does grant many benefits to a surviving spouse. Absent a marriage certificate, the only way to make sure your honey is taken care of upon your death is to create a properly executed estate plan (this means no handwritten Wills!!). Contact OC Estate & Elder Law at (954) 251-0332 or firstname.lastname@example.org get started with a free phone consultation. Our attorneys are fluent in English, Spanish, and Russian.