4 Surprising Legal Documents That Really Impacted Suze Orman's Marriage

The financial maven gets real about the importance of estate planning—especially for newlyweds and the future of their relationship.
Suze Orman
by Suze Orman
Updated May 21, 2020
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My marriage license is a wonderful reminder of my commitment to my wife, KT, and our wedding day. But it's not nearly as meaningful as the other relationship documents we've crafted together over the years: our wills, a living revocable trust, an advance directive for health care and durable power of attorney.

When KT and I met nearly 19 years ago, same-sex marriage wasn't a national right. We eventually got married in 2010 in South Africa, but we knew we were in a committed relationship long before that, so we each updated the four key estate planning documents.

Honestly, updating our documents was relatively simple before we were married. We weren't really merging our money or our estate planning yet. We just wanted to make it easier to handle each other's affairs if necessary. For example, if I died first, I wanted to make sure KT would be able to follow the inheritance and charitable contribution decisions I'd laid out in my trust. I would serve a similar role if she died first.

But when it got really interesting was once we were married and we started all over, creating the documents as a couple. Suddenly, I was involved in decisions about inheritances for her family. Meanwhile, she was drawn into my strong desire to leave the bulk of my money to an organization I care deeply about.

It wasn't that we disagreed; individually, we just had different priorities.

I know this is a reality for so many couples. And it's probably the reason why an alarming number of married couples don't have these essential documents—especially new spouses. Confronting different money goals might not be on your posthoneymoon agenda, but I think it's actually a great time to dive in. Harness the deep pool of love and newlywed glow to tackle these issues as a couple. I think you'll find—like I did—that it can make you even closer.

Still not convinced? I get that contemplating your or your partner's death is scary. But let's flip this: Are you really going to tell me you're fine potentially leaving your spouse in a financial and emotional mess because you didn't create these documents?

Did KT and I have lots of conversations about these four estate planning documents? You have no idea. Were some of those talks hard? Absolutely. But they were also incredibly gratifying. Neither of us was looking to "win" or get our way. This wasn't about fighting it out. We found that as much as we had our individual opinions, we also wanted to make sure the other person was happy. In the end, we were able to create a living revocable trust that reflects what's important to us both.

In turn, our revocable trust (and all the conversations that went into it) is a powerful expression of our bond.

I encourage you to approach creating these essential documents with the same spirit. If you go into the process aligned that you want to make this work for both of you, I think you just might enjoy collaborating to figure out what that looks like.

Here's some practical advice on how to sort through things.

No Estate? No Problem

Don't think you need an estate plan, as you've yet to amass much in the way of assets and are mostly juggling school loans and other debts? I hear you. But please hear me: These essential documents have nothing to do with how much you have—or don't have. Everyone needs them. Period. Especially when there's someone else in your life.

That means a spouse, but it also means children. Consider the fact that a will is where you typically assign guardianship for your kids. And in some states, if you die without a will your kids technically inherit your money—not your spouse or partner—which becomes a logistical nightmare, because minors can't directly inherit money. If that's the kind of mess you leave, your family will end up in probate court where a judge will be in charge of sorting through everything. That costs both time and money.

Building Trust

When you create a living revocable trust with your spouse or partner, you'll both share control of it while you're alive, and each of you will be the "successor trustee" who takes over when one of you dies. Keep in mind that you can edit it, whether that's next month or 20 years from now. That's what "revocable" is all about: It means you can change things up whenever you want. So if you're nervous about tackling a trust, take comfort in the fact that it can evolve along with you.

One of the prime benefits of a trust is that when you die, the successor trustee can quickly take over management of the assets, plus pass assets to beneficiaries as soon as there's a death certificate. If you only have a will, your heirs may need to get your will approved in probate court, which can take months and plenty of money. That said, I also recommend a will. Like I said earlier, it's where you typically appoint a guardian for children. It also covers what happens to assets (and possessions) that you don't place inside your trust.

If you have kids—KT and I don't—and your intent is to leave them your assets, you still need to spell out everything in a will and trust. That goes double if they're minors. This bears repeating: Children under the age of 18 are forbidden from directly inheriting any money. If you die without a will, or "leave" them your money, your family will likely end up in court where a probate judge will oversee everything.

Assigning a guardian may be the hardest decision you'll make. Maybe you want your brother to be the guardian but your spouse wants their sister to be the guardian. This is where love and commitment come into play. There's no permanent impasse here, unless you insist on creating one. If you stay respectful and open with each other, you can work your way to a mutually agreeable decision. Trust me, it's much worse to avoid the conversation—parentally irresponsible, even. Yes, I'm going there: Consider what would happen if you both were killed tomorrow in an auto accident. How much harder would legal trouble make that for your kids?

On Your Terms

Do you care what happens to you if you become so sick you can't speak for yourself?

Then you need an advance directive, also referred to as a living will. This is the document where you spell out to your partner, your family and your medical providers what sort of care you want if you were to ever find yourself incapable of communicating directly.

This is also the document where you really show your love. It helps your nearest and dearest more easily navigate hard decisions on your behalf, plus it tamps down family arguments about what they "think" you want. Take it out of their hands: Tell them in your advance directive exactly what level of end-of-life care you want and don't want.

Helping Others Help You

I totally get that the odds of you becoming seriously disabled and incapable of handling your financial life are low in your 20s, 30s and 40s. But unfortunately, low doesn't mean zero.

The last thing I would ever want KT to have to deal with is lawyers and courts to get permission to handle my affairs if I became ill. But that's what can happen if you don't have a durable power of attorney in place.

A durable power of attorney is the document that appoints someone you choose to step in and handle the money stuff such as paying the credit card bills, the utility bills and managing your retirement funds if you ever become incapacitated.

I realize these four documents don't scream romantic. But they're actually incredible expressions of love. By giving your partner, and yourself, peace of mind, you'll spend less time stressing and more time enjoying married life.

Ready to take the plunge and start estate planning? Purchase Suze Orman's must-have documents package (a $2,500 value) for just $80. The online program includes everything you need to create a will, revocable trust, financial power of attorney and durable power of attorney. Better yet, it's personalized to your specific situation thanks to an easy questionnaire you'll fill out. Did we mention it could cut out the need for a financial advisor and trust lawyer?

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