The U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide in a matter of weeks whether the Constitution requires states to allow same-sex marriage. While many same-sex couples may be tempted to simply await a decision, waiting may not be the best strategy. To gain control of life decisions and estate planning, same-sex couples should put their wishes in writing now without waiting for the Supreme Court decision.
A little background: The top court has heard arguments on cases brought by 15 same-sex couples in four states and is expected to issue their decision this month. If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, all states will have to recognize same-sex marriages. (Currently, 36 states do so.)
But don’t expect a ruling in favor of same-sex marriage to clear the muddy marital waters. When it comes to estate planning matters, the hodgepodge of rules that apply state-by-state to married couples, whether same-sex or opposite sex, will continue.
Regardless of the Court’s decision, when it comes to same-sex estate planning matters, couples should be taking steps now to make their plan bullet-proof. By “bullet-proof” I mean designing an estate plan that addresses their specific wants and needs and keeps them in control. A couple’s own plan is always better than someone else’s and without an estate plan of their own, a couple is subject to the default rules of their state – not an attractive option.
One option to carefully consider: a revocable trust, which can be useful in distributing assets to the beneficiaries and allow heirs to avoid the time and expense involved in the probate process. Additionally, a revocable trust offers flexibility, allowing the couple to modify and update the plan as their circumstances change.
Another important consideration for same-sex couples is how they want the courts to treat their children. The same-sex couple with children has to be treated as a blended family. The question of parental rights must also be addressed. For instance, what happens to the rights of the biological parent who is not part of the couple? A same-sex partner who is not a biological parent should consider adopting the child to establish his or her rights.
If same-sex couples are not proactively planning, the courts in each state will be making the decisions for them. Bottom line: the default rules in most states are woefully inadequate and no one – either opposite sex or same-sex couples – should ever have to rely on default rules.
Planning will be especially critical for same-sex couples if the Supreme Court allows states to continue to have their own rules on who can marry; however, even if the high court decides in favor of same sex marriage, proactive planning is still essential to maintaining control of one’s life and assets.