The single person’s guide to wills and estate planning

You need a will even if you’re single to make sure your affairs are settled properly.

Elissa

By

Elissa Suh

Elissa Suh

Personal Finance Editor

Elissa Suh is a personal finance editor at Policygenius in New York City. She has researched and written extensively about finance and insurance since 2019, with an emphasis in estate planning and mortgages. Her writing has been cited by MarketWatch, CNBC, and Betterment.

Published May 21, 2021|5 min read

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It’s a harmful myth that estate planning is only for people who are married or have children. If you don’t plan for what happens to your assets and die without a will, then the court will determine your heirs — and if you have no heirs, your assets, including your hard-earned retirement savings, will go to the state. That’s why it’s imperative for single people to make a will that states who exactly should receive their things. Only 26.7% of singles (who’ve never married) had a will in 2020, according to our estate planning survey

Single people may find it difficult to choose beneficiaries, the people who inherit their assets, compared to their married couples or even single parents who will give most of their things to spouses or children. However, if you’re single you probably have other important people in your life — like siblings, nieces or nephews, or even cousins that you might want to leave something for. Including non-blood relatives in an estate plan isn’t out of the question either; you can use the will to leave something for friends, romantic partners, or even charitable organizations to create a legacy that’ll last well into the future.

Key Takeaways

  • If you have no heirs then the state can lay claim to your assets

  • Unmarried couples typically aren't entitled to each other’s assets under state inheritance laws when there is no will

  • Basic estate planning, like getting a will and power of attorney documents, can be inexpensive and doesn’t require a lawyer

1. Making a will 

A last will and testament is a legal document that states names who should receive your assets. It also lets you name an executor, the person who settles your estate after you die by making sure your debts are paid and that your belongings end up in the possession of whoever you specified. 

Without a will, the court of law will appoint someone to administer your estate and distribute it according to state intestate succession laws, which are based on a next-of-kin hierarchy. Typically your estate will go to your parents or your siblings first before your aunts and uncles have a claim to it next and so on. If you have no heirs, then your belongings become state property. 

To prevent this from happening you should make a will. You can use a will to give away any assets that you own outright, but certain financial assets can pass without one — such as when you designate a beneficiary to your bank account. See the full list of what not to include in a will.

Why single people need a will:

  • To give away their money and assets

  • To prevent the state from claiming assets when there are no heirs

  • To appoint an executor to settle the estate  

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2. Donating to charity & establishing a legacy

Without any children or spouse to provide for, a single person may want to leave assets to charity. There are a few ways to that charitable giving can be a part of your estate plan:

The easiest way is to donate through your will, which you can do by naming the charity or organization as the beneficiary of your will as you would with a person. Charitable bequests are useful if you want to make a one-time donation, and you can even state your desires for how you wish the money or assets should be used. 

But if you want to be able to support an organization over a longer period of time, you may want to set up a charitable trust. A trust is a separate legal entity that holds assets on your behalf and can invest them for you and give you tax advantages. You fund the trust, which then distributes the money to a non-profit organization of your choosing as well as other beneficiaries if you want. Exactly how the trust is structured and how the trust property is divided up between the beneficiaries determines whether you have a charitable remainder trust or a charitable lead trust. Both types of trusts may also provide income tax benefits.

Learn all about charitable trusts and how to start one.

3. Using a trust

A single person who wants more control over how their assets are distributed can benefit from including a revocable trust in their estate plan. You appoint a trustee to manage the trust property, and it can pass to your beneficiaries while avoiding probate

Wealthy singles may find it advantageous to open an irrevocable trust, which can provide asset protection and minimize income, capital gains, and estate taxes. Estates worth over $11.7 million in 2021 will owe federal estate tax. You'll need to hire an estate attorney to help set up an irrevocable trust.

Learn more about a revocable vs irrevocable trust

4. Planning for incapacity with durable powers of attorney 

Everyone, including single people, should make sure they know what would happen in the event that they’re unable to handle their own affairs, like if they’re in a coma. You can give someone, called an agent, the legal authority to make decisions — medical and financial —  on your behalf through durable powers of attorney. Here are two different documents you should get: 

Single people can choose a sibling, a close friend or romantic partner they trust, or professional, like an estate attorney or a nurse advocate. Whoever you choose, make sure they will respect your wishes. 

If you have specific preferences for medical treatment and care, like how long you want to be kept on a feeding tube, you should write a living will and give it to your agent so they can follow your instructions. 

5. Updating your estate plan

If you’re no longer single or want to name a different beneficiary, you should amend your will to reflect these changes. You can add an amendment to your will called a codicil or you can write a new will all together — just make sure to destroy the old one so there is no confusion or doubt as to which one is the more updated version. 

Similarly, single people should also update their beneficiary designations for their bank accounts and other financial assets and their power of attorney forms.