Today it not uncommon for couples, whether opposite sex or same sex, to live together and share their lives as domestic partners without any desire to legally marry or to officially register as domestic partners. There are many laws in Wisconsin that provide spouses and registered domestic partners with certain legal protections when it comes to financial and health care matters. These right can be found primarily in Wisconsin’s Marital Property Act and in Wisconsin’s domestic partnership laws (Fair Wisconsin provides an excellent summary in its Domestic Partnership Protections Reference Guide). In contrast, couples who are not legally married and who are not registered may have no more legal rights with regard to each other than friends, distant relatives, or even strangers.
While everyone should have a comprehensive estate plan in place, it is even more vital for unmarried/unregistered domestic partners to execute proper legal documents if they wish to protect each other’s rights. Examples of these documents, although not a comprehensive list, include: 1) a Health Care Power of Attorney naming the person authorized to make health care decisions in the event you are no longer capable of making your own decisions, 2) a Living Will (also known as a Declaration to Physicians) stating whether or not you wish to be kept alive artificially under certain circumstances, 3) a HIPAA form authorizing specific individuals to access your medical records when necessary, 4) a Property Power of Attorney naming the person authorized to make financial decisions in the event you are no longer capable of managing your own affairs, 5) an Authorization for Final Disposition naming the person authorized to make burial and funeral decisions for you, and 6) a Will designating who will handle your estate and how your assets will ultimately be distributed after your death. In addition, if a couple owns real estate together, a Joint Ownership Agreement is an important tool to ensure your rights and obligations are spelled out while you are alive and well, and also after an incapacity or death has occurred.
Remember that an estate plan is not only for your own peace of mind, but it is primarily a gift for those who matter most – your loved ones.