Unmarried partners do not have an automatic right to inherit from each other, no matter how long they've been together, unless they have registered as domestic partners. This can cause devastating financial results if you or your partner die without a thorough estate plan: Estates automatically pass to spouses and other legally recognized family members, not unmarried couples. With proper planning for your specific situation, you can ensure that your partner receives the assets you want him to have if something happens to you.
Washington law establishes many spousal rights and responsibilities without marriage if a couple registers as domestic partners with the Washington Secretary of State. Registered domestic partnership is available in Washington for opposite-sex couples when at least one partner is at least 62 years old, and for same-sex couples of any age. Once registered, the couple has many legal rights that non-registered couples do not have, including the ability to administer a deceased partner’s estate if that partner dies without naming a personal representative in his will.
Creating a will allows you to direct the distribution of your property after you die and appoint a person to manage your estate through the distribution process, called probate. In Washington, you are free to distribute all or part of your estate to your partner, even if you never married or registered as domestic partners. You can also change your will at any time, as long as you are mentally competent, so creating a will won’t take away your flexibility to change distributions in the future.
If you die without a will, your property will pass according to Washington’s intestate succession laws. If you have a registered domestic partner, your partner will receive all of your marital estate plus a portion of your separate property, which includes assets you owned before you registered the partnership. If you and your partner are not registered domestic partners, your partner will not inherit anything from your estate. Instead, your estate will be distributed to your surviving descendants, or -- if you do not have descendants -- to your parents, siblings or more distant relatives.
In Washington, you may choose to own property, such as real estate or bank accounts, with your partner as “joint tenants with right of survivorship” by inserting appropriate language in the ownership documents. This form of ownership allows your partner to receive the property automatically when you die, without having to go through the probate process.
Many assets allow you to designate beneficiaries to whom the asset will be given when you die. For example, payable-on-death bank accounts are paid automatically to any beneficiary you name. Life insurance policies and many retirement plans are also paid directly to the beneficiaries you named in the policy or plan. Since these types of assets are governed by the contractual relationship between you and the company administering the asset, check with the company for their specific requirements on naming beneficiaries.