Most people understand the importance of putting a carefully considered estate plan into place in order to ensure that one’s wishes are carried out with respect to the distribution of their assets after death. Married and common law couples generally plan their estates so that their assets pass to their spouse after death, who will then in turn pass all of the couple’s assets onto the couple’s children, if they have them.
When a young couple marries or moves in together before having children or acquiring significant assets, estate planning is generally not a complicated prospect. When two people share children and build their wealth together from the start, each party usually has similar long-term goals with respect to their estates and beneficiaries. However, when couples marry or enter into a common law relationship later in life due to divorce or the death of their first spouse, estate matters can become considerably more complicated. Each person is more likely to have grown children, established assets and other interests that were built before the relationship began. This can drastically affect the estate planning process in multiple ways.
How Much to Leave to a Surviving Second Spouse
When an estate plan involves a second spouse or common law partner as well as grown children from a previous relationship, determining the best method for the distribution of assets is key. The risks of leaving everything to the surviving spouse with the intention that they will then leave assets to one’s children after their death are numerous. The surviving spouse may not respect the intention of the original plan, gifting funds during their lifetime to their own children, charitable organizations or elsewhere, leaving little or nothing to gift to the children of the deceased when they pass. The surviving spouse may also enter into a new relationship, one that may involve other children and different or shifting financial priorities.
Aside from the potential for one’s assets to be depleted by the surviving spouse, there is also an emotional component to consider. Grown children may feel hurt, angered or forgotten should a spouse who is not their parent inherit the entire estate in favour of them, even if the intention exists that the spouse will, in turn, leave assets to the children upon their death. This option leaves a lot of room for uncertainty, which is often what a testator is most trying to avoid when making an estate plan.
Another factor to consider is the taxability of certain assets. Assets such as Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs), Registered Retirement Income Funds (RRIFs), and Tax-Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs), may or may not be subject to taxes, depending on the beneficiary. Each of these assets can be transferred tax-free upon death to a surviving spouse, however, if they are left to children of the deceased, all will face tax penalties. This may not be a reason to leave these to a spouse rather than to one’s children, but if making decisions on which assets to leave to whom, this should be taken under advisement.
Leaving too little to a second spouse or partner is also a concern, particularly when there is a significant disparity in the parties’ assets and income. Leaving too little may result in insufficient assets, and the surviving spouse may find themselves needing to postpone retirement or facing the need to significantly curb spending in their later years.
A qualified estate planning lawyer will review all aspects of your financial situation and advise on how to determine a happy medium to the benefit of all family members over the long term.
The Matrimonial Home
When a couple shares a home, traditionally they will both go on title as joint tenants, which means that upon the death of one spouse, full ownership will transfer by right to the surviving spouse. When a couple each have children from previous relationships, they may choose instead to own the home as tenants in common. This means that they can allocate the percentage of ownership between them (often a 50/50 split) and when one spouse dies, their share in the property will be distributed according to their will. However, this can result in an awkward ownership split between a surviving spouse and the deceased’s children. Depending on family dynamics, this option could be just fine, but it may cause problems if any tension exists between the surviving spouse and the deceased’s children.
Another option that couples sometimes choose, particularly in common law relationships where the home is solely owned by one party, is for the spouse who owns the home to designate a life estate in the home for their surviving spouse or partner in their will. This option guarantees the right of the surviving spouse to remain in the home for their lifetime (a right not inherent in common law relationships), with the property ownership transferring to the owner’s children upon their death (or sooner, if the surviving spouse enters into a new relationship and/or chooses to leave of their own volition).
Obtaining Independent Legal Advice
When planning an estate involving later in life spouses or common law partners and children from previous relationships, it is advisable that both parties retain their own independent legal counsel. This will ensure that each party receives advice designed to protect their individual interests and allow the design of a plan that adequately addresses each party’s stated intentions.
At Baker & Company, our Toronto estate planning lawyers can help you establish an estate plan tailored to your needs, no matter your current family status. We have extensive experience and expertise in providing you with estate planning advice and implementing your desired plan. Call us at 416-777-0100 or contact us online for a consultation.