Society can change very rapidly, often within our own lifetimes. This is both a technological evolution – there are many people alive today who can remember a childhood when television simply did not exist – and a cultural one. Only a few years ago, same-sex marriage was still a taboo subject with little serious support. However, the last two years have seen a dramatic shift, with the Federal government, and many State governments, officially recognizing same-sex marriage. At the same time, many other forms of "alternative" families have become increasingly common, including single parents and heterosexual couples who choose not to get married even when they have children. This form is commonly known as a "blended family".
This presents a challenge, because the law moves much more slowly than society’s attitudes, and most of the legal framework designed to protect and regulate family estates still only recognizes next of kin. When couples are not legally married, this means that an unexpected death can result in their home and their retirement funds being placed in the control of someone other than their partner. The answer to this potential problem is careful estate planning – in fact, because of this, estate planning is critical for the "alternative" family.
Estate planning includes a collection of legal documents directing how your assets and wealth will be distributed in the event of your death. It is important to keep in mind that if you are not married legally you may not enjoy any legal protection as a family unit, meaning that your partner and children may not have automatic authority to act on your behalf in the event of your disability. As a result, Estate planning should include provisions for disability, naming a partner or a child and giving that individual the authority to act on your behalf. Otherwise, a family member may automatically be placed in this position regardless of your relationship with them.
Estate planning tends to be one of those life events we put off due to the fact no one imagines the unthinkable happening to them. Often people assume that a life built together automatically means something. The fact is, in the eyes of the law, your life together may not mean anything. The time to make your wishes clear and to anticipate every potential problem is now, while you have the time and ability to confer with an expert and plan your estate properly.