Why Words Really Matter
By David Kubikian, Esq.
While I was completing my Master of Laws in Taxation in the mid-2000s, which is, coincidentally, the beginning of the worst pickup line ever, the world was a very different place. Smartphones were just catching on, cameras with film were still a thing and no state had yet passed a law to recognize same-sex marriages.
I distinctly remember discussions in one of my tax classes about what it might mean if New York State followed Massachusetts and legalized same-sex marriages. For planning purposes, things would get complicated, because no such recognition had existed beforehand on a federal level. For example, certain benefits such as tax deductions would be available at the state but not the federal level. That’s because health insurance benefits, head of household filings on tax returns and retirement benefits all hinged on words such as “spouse” and “marriage.” While there were conversations about what the word “marriage” meant spiritually or religiously, there were real-life ramifications to how those terms were defined. Simply
put, words matter.
Today, in my world—that of legal documents and precedents, and estate and elder law planning—words are even more important than ever. Being a “spouse” is an important legal fact. Consider for a moment some basic estate planning. In New York, if you die without an estate plan, whether your significant other receives an inheritance depends on his or her legal designation. If the person you love and wish to spend the rest of your life with is your “spouse,” your death will mean that he or she is entitled to no less than half of your estate, and in many cases, 100 percent of your estate. Have a significant other who’s
not officially your spouse? Well, then that person may well receive nothing under New York State law unless you specifically provided him or her with a will or trust or have designated him or her as a beneficiary or
co-owner of your assets.
I’m not trying to trick anybody here; this happens all the time. For one, people have been getting married later in life. They might’ve met a decade ago but waited to tie the knot—or just ended up deciding that they didn’t want to get married at all. Other times, it’s a person’s second love that’s the love of his or her life. But life’s exceedingly more complicated than that, as we know. Maybe your significant other has kids; you do, too; and you’ve decided to get married once they’re older. In the meantime, lives are commingled, as are assets. She sells her place, you keep yours. Then one day, the unthinkable happens, and without previous planning or guidance, you end up the surviving partner with no legal rights to the estate of your soulmate.
Now, before you go assuming that my solution is for everyone to get married, think again. It’s actually quite a bit simpler than that: Everyone needs to plan ahead. Speak to an attorney and create an estate plan.
Another all too familiar legal situation with unexpected consequences involves children of previous relationships. Bob meets Anne. Bob has a daughter from a previous relationship who’s only two years old at the time. Bob and Anne fall in love, get married and have children together. Anne is now a stepmother to Bob’s daughter. She treats her children, step- or otherwise, exactly the same. Her love has no bounds. It’s one big happy modern family. Question: Is Bob’s daughter Anne’s as well? Unless Anne formally adopted her, which rarely happens (because her biological mom is still alive), the answer is no. That has huge estate planning ramifications. The language in Anne’s estate plan needs to be just so in order to make sure that everyone she considers to be her child is treated the same way. The truth is a stepdaughter has no rights to an estate. “Child” also has a definition, and while love may be boundless, you can’t escape the facts. Yes, words really matter.