How much does “marriage” matter when it comes to estate planning? The recent California court ruling on gay marriage has thrown marriage and its meaning once again into the limelight, and has many people thinking about what marriage means on a legal level.

Anyone who pays taxes knows that your marital status matters to the state and federal government. Your marital status also impacts your rights when it comes to insurance, privacy, pensions, and even probate. For example, the property of a married person who dies without a will automatically passes to their spouse (and children)*—this is not necessarily the case for unmarried couples. Similarly, in an emergency medical situation a spouse will have access to information about his or her injured spouse, but unmarried couples do not always have this same privilege. Although there is good reason behind these privacy laws, it can be particularly distressing when couples who have lived together for years may suddenly have trouble getting medical staff to recognize their partner when a medical decision needs to be made.

Luckily, your estate planning attorney can help circumvent some of the potential problems unmarried couples may face in case of incapacity or upon death. Executing an Advanced Health Care Directive or Health Care Power of Attorney will ensure that medical personnel recognize the authority of a trusted partner to make medical decisions for you. Similarly, by creating a Will or Trust you can nominate the person you want to act as executor of your estate upon your death, and who the beneficiaries of your property will be, regardless of whether you have a marriage license or not.

The issue of marriage is one that is obviously very close to the heart, but estate planners see it on a practical level as well. In the legal world of estate planning our goal is to ensure that your wishes for end of life health care and final distribution of wealth are honored—regardless of your marital status.

*Please note: Probate laws will vary from state to state—be sure to talk to your estate planning attorney about the laws specific to your state of residence.