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Unmarried couples must clarify their chosen heirs

In today's culture, many people are choosing to live in committed relationships rather than becoming legally married. Some have gone through a difficult divorce and do not wish to repeat that experience. Others simply find no compelling reason to marry and prefer to define their relationships by their own terms. Regardless of the reasons behind such a choice, unmarried couples in Tennessee have specific estate planning needs and must take steps to clearly list their intended heirs.

Many people are unaware that when an individual dies without a will or other estate planning protections, his or her estate enters into the probate process. This is the legal proceeding in which the distribution of an individual's assets will be determined by the court. Probate follows state law, and the manner in which assets are passed down in the absence of a last will and testament may be far different from what an individual intended.

For example, a couple who have lived together and built a life with one another for many years may intend to pass accumulated wealth to each other in the event of death. Absent a will, however, the probate court would determine how those assets are distributed according to state law. One's partner could end up with virtually no share of his or her loved one's wealth. Those assets could be passed down to estranged or distant family members, leaving the partner with little opportunity for recourse.

The best way to ensure that one's wishes are carried out in the event of death is to draft those wishes into a legally binding will. By doing so, individuals can outline their designated heirs and make the process of passing down wealth far easier to manage. There is nothing wrong with deciding to forego marriage, but Tennessee residents who do so must understand that married couples receive rights under state law, and additional steps must be taken in order to reach that same level of protection.

Source: The Huffington Post, "Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples", Alexandra Smyser, Sept. 10, 2015

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