Brenda and Doug had three adult children and a net worth of roughly $900,000 when Brenda died suddenly at age 58. The couple’s assets included a home, a 401k plan, a modest stock and bond portfolio, and some gold. There was also a permanent policy on Doug’s life that would produce an additional $500,000 at his death. It all passed to Doug, age 60.
Within three years, Doug married Susan, age 43, who had two adult children from a prior marriage. Doug, a soft touch by nature, allowed his assets to be swept up in the new marriage to insure that Susan had the lifestyle she expected. Brenda’s estate funded half the tab. At Doug’s passing, all residual assets passed to Susan, along with the life insurance. Susan lived off the assets for the balance of her days and left the residual to her kids. Brenda’s three children never saw a dime.
It’s the classic remarriage risk scenario. Can it be protected against? Sure. Should it be? That’s a tougher question for many couples.
Statistics confirm that the remarriage risk is a bigger deal for women. About 700,000 women lose their husbands each year and will be widows for 14 years on average. But only eight percent of widows between ages 55 and 64 remarry, and the remarriage rate drops to two percent for those over age 65.
It’s a whole different story for men who lose their wives. Although fewer widowers are created each year (about half the number of widows) and they are badly outnumbered by widows (more than four-to-one), Census Bureau numbers indicate that, among older adults, there are 10 widower remarriages for every one widow remarriage.
There are various explanations for this huge difference: the social acceptance of men remarrying young women; men just seeking companionship and someone to care for them, while women demanding true romance; and the huge imbalance in the numbers that greatly favors the men. But no matter the explanation, the odds of getting burned are much higher for women.
The bottom line goal of the estate planning process is to sleep well at night, knowing that the key bases have been covered. Having helped countless couples with their planning needs, I’m convinced that the decision to make this remarriage risk a base that needs covering is not a function of the numbers or the odds. It’s about how each spouse sizes up his or her mate. And it’s impossible to prejudge any couple on his one.
I have sat with bright, attractive 40-year-olds who are convinced their spouses will never remarry or, if there is a remarriage, the spouse will always protect the kids. I’ve counseled couples in their late-70s who are obsessed with the risk. As one wife said of her aged husband who struggled just to make it to my office, “He’ll start squandering my money on a young 65-year-old bride before he’s paid for my funeral.”
How can a spouse, such as Brenda, protect against the risk? There are a few options. Brenda could have passed her share of the estate to her adult children, with a request that the children help out their father if he needs some support down the road. This option completely moots the remarriage risk, but it’s usually too disruptive and harsh for the surviving mate. And it doesn’t work with minor children. It’s not a viable choice for most.
The alternative? It’s a family trust that would have been funded with Brenda’s share of the estate. It could have been created under Brenda’s will or her living trust. Such a trust could have restricted or cutoff Doug’s capacity to support a new wife and could have ensured that Brenda’s share of the property would ultimately pass to her children. As for Doug, he could have been given support rights to help maintain his standard of living and even management rights to invest and protect the trust property. There’s tremendous flexibility with family trusts of this type. They can easily be customized to fit the unique needs of any family.
A family trust triggers a little added complexity for the surviving spouse. There’s a separate trust tax return each year, more accounting chores, and rules that need to be followed. But these added burdens seldom, if ever, justify rejecting a trust that makes sense for a specific couple.
Beyond hedging against the remarriage risk, a family trust may be designed to accomplish other key objectives. Trust assets may be insulated from claims of the surviving mate’s creditors. Estate tax exposures can be reduced for couples with large estates. And for elderly couples with limited resources, a family trust can help the surviving spouse qualify for Medicaid benefits.
Should you and your spouse carefully consider whether such a trust is a smart move for you? Absolutely. But remember, it’s not for everyone. For some couples of all ages, it fits the bill perfectly. Others just don’t feel that their remarriage concerns and the other trust benefits justify the added complexity. Revisit the issue periodically, at least every five years. Circumstances, perceptions and fears often change over time.