Estate Planning

Single family home

The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent legal advice of a licensed attorney. Service members and their families seeking legal advice should consult the staff of the nearest installation Legal Assistance Office.

Estate planning is not just for the wealthy. It’s for nearly everyone who owns property, which can include a house, car or savings account. Good estate plans address important situations that could arise should something happen to you, including:

  • What happens to your property?
  • Who cares for your children?
  • Who oversees your finances and health care options when you can’t?

Estate planning involves making decisions about how things like your real estate, investments, Social Security, cash, life insurance and business interests are used, maintained and distributed should you become incapacitated or after your death.

Why is estate planning important?

Estate planning offers you peace of mind by ensuring that you have your affairs in order for your loved ones in the event of your death and makes sure they are cared for according to your wishes. It can save you and your loved ones time and money.

There are pieces of an estate plan — such as a will — that are strongly recommended for service members with children. As a parent, you and your spouse or partner will want to decide who should raise your children in the event of your death. To do this, you’ll need a will that designates legal guardians for your surviving kids.

What does an estate plan include?

Several important legal documents make up your estate plan, which is tailored to meet your family’s needs. You and your spouse or partner — if you are married — will want discuss what the best approach is to ensure you family’s financial security. You may also want to include the following:

  • Power of attorney: This document gives one person the authority to act on your behalf on legal, money and health matters if you become unable to handle your own affairs.
  • Living will (advanced medical directive): This document allows you to describe what medical treatments you do or don’t want should you suffer a serious injury or become terminally ill. You can also designate who you prefer to make medical decisions for you if you’re unable to do so via a durable health care power of attorney.
  • Long-term care and insurance: It is important to plan ahead for the care you may need if you have a disabling or chronic illness and can no longer care for yourself.
  • Last will and testament: With this legal document, you dictate your wishes for after your death. Without a will (or similar testamentary instrument, such as a trust), state law governs how your property will be distributed and who should be responsible for the care of your children.
  • Testamentary/nontestamentary trust: This legal document is used to manage or protect assets, offer privacy, provide for multiple beneficiaries and children or tax planning and avoid the delays and costs of probate court.
  • Servicemembers’ Group Life insurance: Service members have life insurance through Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance. Depending on the benefit amount you want to provide to your family, you may want to supplement your SGLI with another life insurance policy.
  • Survivor benefits: If you die because of an injury or illness incurred or aggravated during your service, your survivors may be entitled to benefits from the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Some benefits are automatic, but there are others that your family must apply for.
  • Funeral and burial arrangements: Including funeral and burial arrangements in your estate plan helps ensure that your final wishes are carried out. Your family is also eligible to receive funeral and burial benefits through veterans affairs.

Estate Planning Resources

Be sure to give each of the documents in your estate plan the time and attention it deserves. Contacting an estate planning attorney at your installation’s legal assistance office is a good first step toward putting together a will and other pieces of an estate plan. The following organizations can provide additional legal assistance:

If you’re not sure where to start in the estate planning process, take advantage of Military OneSource’s free financial counseling.

The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent legal advice of a licensed attorney. Service members and their families seeking legal advice should consult the staff of the nearest installation Legal Assistance Office.

Legal and Financial Considerations for Lesbian and Gay Service Members

Lesbian couple during wedding ceremony

The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent legal advice of a licensed attorney. Service members and their families seeking legal advice should consult the staff of the nearest installation Legal Assistance Office.

Great strides have been made on behalf of the lesbian, gay and bisexual community. The following information will help you understand the benefits and protections for lesbian and gay service members.

Federal legislation

The federal government has worked to ensure that federal benefits for legally married, same-sex couples are implemented.

  • Spousal and family benefits for service members and their same-sex married partners — The Department of Defense extends benefits such as health care and basic allowance for housing to all married service members, regardless of sexual orientation.
  • Taxpayer benefits — For information and guidance on IRS regulations, visit the Answers to Frequently Asked Questions for Same-Sex Couples webpage.
  • Social Security benefits — The Social Security Administration processes spousal and survivor benefits for same-sex married couples.
  • ImmigrationU.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reviews immigration visa petitions filed on behalf of same-sex spouses in the same manner as those filed on behalf of an opposite-sex spouses.
  • Family support program — Department of Defense leaders extended access to family support programs and other resources to same-sex couples.

State legislation

The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states in 2015, but here are a few things to take into consideration:

  • Taxes — Contact a tax professional to find out if you and your partner may file a joint tax return.
  • Property ownership — If you have property, be sure to familiarize yourself with joint property ownership rules in your state and how they apply to inheritance and property division in a divorce.
  • Parental and adoption rights — In many states, both same-sex partners may not be automatically considered legal parents when the couple has a child or adopts.
  • Inheritance rights — Depending on state laws, same-sex couples may not have the same rights of survivorship protection. Without a will, your property may be distributed according to your state’s rules.
  • Medical decision-making privileges — Medical personnel may look to immediate family members to make these decisions, so be sure you get legal assistance to ensure that you are covered.
  • Housing rights — In states that don’t explicitly prohibit it, same-sex couples may face housing discrimination.

Protect the financial future of yourself and your family

Here are some ways all couples can protect themselves and their families:

  • Know your state and local laws — You will generally have more protections if you are legally married.
  • Begin financial planning — A visit to your installation’s personal financial management office is a great place to start.
  • Create powers of attorney for both partners — A general power of attorney authorizes a person to act on your behalf for most things, while a special power of attorney authorizes your designee to act in your behalf in a specific situation, such as registering a car or getting medical care for your children.
  • Draft a will — A will is a legally binding document that describes how you want your property distributed after your death. It may also include other matters, such as the appointment of your child’s guardian.
  • Create a living will — A living will, or advance medical directive, allows you to describe medical treatments you want in case of injury or illness and to identify someone to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to do so.
  • Title your property jointly — When either partner buys personal property or real estate, you may want to be sure it is titled jointly with rights of survivorship, so the surviving partner receives full ownership.
  • Draft a parenting agreement — For parents who cannot legally share custody of their children, this document helps identify parental rights and responsibilities.

The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent legal advice of a licensed attorney. Service members and their families seeking legal advice should consult the staff of the nearest installation Legal Assistance Office.

Documents for a Deployed Service Member’s Designated Family Caregiver

Military dad holds smiling daughter

You want your family to receive the best care possible while you are deployed. And a family care plan provides the information and documents necessary for a designated caregiver to help your family until you return home.

Family care plans

The family care plan is a blueprint that describes how your family should be cared for while you’re away. Although family care plans aren’t required for all service members, they are required if you’re a single parent, a dual-military family with children younger than 19, or if you have sole responsibility for caring for a disabled or elderly family member. You and your designated caregiver should work together on this document to be sure it includes all necessary information, including:

  • Child care guidance – Expectations and schedules for child care, school and extracurricular activities
  • Medical care information – Medications, allergies and doctor’s appointments
  • Parenting responsibilities and challenges – Should include information on food preferences and restrictions, bedtime, discipline, religious observances and activities, social and leisure-time activities, safety precautions and allowances and spending
  • Contact information – For friends and relatives, health care and other service providers, community resources and your unit
  • Important documents – Location of documents such as wills, insurance papers and birth certificates
  • Finances – Information on how the financial support of family members should be managed
  • Alternative caregiver – Name and contact information of an alternate caregiver

Other important documents

Also keep these documents current and available to your designated caregiver:

  • Power of attorney: This authorizes your caregiver to make parenting decisions on your behalf for a specified period of time, including decisions related to medical care. A POA is required as part of your family care plan.
  • Military ID cards: Make sure each family member age 10 and older is registered in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System and has a current ID card. Caregivers do not get their own ID cards while caring for your family.
  • Agent letter of authorization: Caregivers can access on-installation facilities to support your family members in their care, but they must have a letter of authorization signed by the commanding officer of the installation. You can request this letter through the ID card office at your installation.

For more information about documents your designated family caregiver needs, talk with a Military OneSource consultant at 800-342-9647. OCONUS/International? Click here for overseas calling options. The legal assistance offices on your installation can also help with any legal documents to support your family care plan.

Estate Planning – The Essentials

Paralegal notarizes a legal document

The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent legal advice of a licensed attorney. Service members and their families seeking legal advice should consult the staff of the nearest installation Legal Assistance Office.

You’re a guardian of your country and your family. To safeguard your family’s financial future, consider taking steps that help you gain control of your property and other assets so you can provide for your family for the long term. Military OneSource provides resources, services and information on many legal matters and offers advice to help secure your family’s future.

Here are the essentials:

Write a last will and testament.

With this legal document, you dictate your wishes for after your death. Without a will (or similar testamentary instrument, such as a trust), state law governs how your property will be distributed and who should be responsible for the care of your children. You can change your will at any time as long as you meet certain conditions.

Relevant Articles:

Relevant Resources:

Designate someone to hold power of attorney over your affairs.

A power of attorney is a legal document that gives one person the authority to act on your behalf on legal or financial matters after your death or if you become unable to handle your own affairs. Certain types of powers of attorney can also allow your designated person to make health care decisions on your behalf if you become unable to handle your own affairs. When drafting a power of attorney, you can choose between general, special and durable powers of attorney.

Relevant Articles:

Relevant Resources:

Create a living will.

Also known as an advanced medical directive, a living will allows you to describe the medical treatments you want or don’t want in the event of a serious injury or terminal illness. You can also designate someone to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to do so via a power of attorney. In some cases, it makes sense to have both a living will and a durable health care power of attorney.

Relevant Articles:

Relevant Resources:

Seek out estate-planning resources.

Military OneSource can provide you with resources to begin or update your estate plan, including guidance from an estate planning attorney at your installation’s legal assistance office. Other organizations that can provide legal assistance include the Defense Finance and Accounting Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Visit their websites for more information as well as Military OneSource.

Relevant Articles:

Relevant Resources:

The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent legal advice of a licensed attorney. Service members and their families seeking legal advice should consult the staff of the nearest installation Legal Assistance Office.

Life Happens: Legal Assistance and Paperwork for Service Members and Families

Hand stamping paperwork

The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent legal advice of a licensed attorney. Service members and their families seeking legal advice should consult the staff of the nearest installation Legal Assistance Office.

You know the drill: Paperwork comes with the military. It also comes into play for legal protections in both your professional and personal life. Hassles can arise when something happens and you don’t have your paperwork in order.

In certain cases, you may need a military lawyer for advice or representation. Military OneSource can help connect you to the legal assistance you require. Call 800-342-9647.

Organize your life: Legal paperwork helps you be prepared

There are some legal documents every service member — and citizen — should have:

Last will and testament. A will lets you decide what happens to your property in the event of your death. Otherwise, the courts will decide for you, and likely impose a fee for doing so. A will is often the principal document in an estate plan, in which you determine what happens to your money, real estate, investments, Social Security, life insurance and business interests. If you have a will, consider updating it based on your family’s current needs.

Power of attorney. This document allows you to name a trusted person to act on your behalf on legal or money matters while you’re deployed or otherwise unable to represent yourself. It permits them to do your banking and buy or sell property, among other transactions.

Living will. With a living will, you can declare ahead of time what medical treatment you want — or don’t want — should you suffer a serious injury or illness that leaves you unable to make such decisions for yourself.

When life gets messy: Know your legal options

Sometimes things happen in life and you need legal help. You can contact your legal assistance office for more information on many issues, including:

Divorce. Typically, divorce is governed by state and local laws and procedures, but being in the military can present issues specific to the services ─ ranging from affecting military benefits such as housing to supporting family members upon separation. Understand your rights and obligations.

Child custody and adoption. Legal assistance can be helpful in several situations involving children. These can include preparing a family care plan that can help provide direction to the person caring for your children when you deploy. And if you adopt a child in another country, be aware that you will have to follow up with paperwork and additional steps in the United States as well when you return stateside.

Other legal matters. There are a range of other issues — from reporting crimes to alcohol and drug offenses — for which you’ll need legal assistance or representation. Use the Armed Forces Legal Assistance Locator to find your nearest legal assistance office.

You can seek assistance from military defense counsel if you’re facing administrative discharge or criminal prosecution by the military. Military defense counsel are certified judge advocates who provide independent legal representation and confidential legal advice for service members suspected of an offense or facing adverse administrative actions.

The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent legal advice of a licensed attorney. Service members and their families seeking legal advice should consult the staff of the nearest installation Legal Assistance Office.

Writing a Last Will and Testament

Service member gives legal counsel

The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent legal advice of a licensed attorney. Service members and their families seeking legal advice should consult the staff of the nearest installation Legal Assistance Office.

Although writing a last will and testament is not required, it is recommended that service members and their families have wills, even if they do not have children or valuable property. A valid will is a legally binding document that ensures your wishes are carried out after your death. If you haven’t created one already, here are several reasons why you should consider preparing a will.

Importance of the will

If you own property, you’ll want to determine who receives ownership in the event of your death. Your estate may increase in value after mortgage replacement or general appreciation, for instance, but if you don’t have a will, you won’t have a say in how it gets divided.

A will is needed to establish legal guardianship. As a parent, a will allows you to determine the appropriate guardians for your children. Without one, a judge will choose guardians for your children and determine who raises them.

When you can write and update a will

Any person age 18 or older who is of sound mind can write a will. But keep in mind that if you write a will under life-threatening circumstances, it could be challenged. And if you do not write your will personally, but rather a friend or family member writes it for you, your will could be challenged or revoked. An attorney at your legal assistance office can help you draw up a will and any associated estate-planning documents.

You can change your will at any time, as long as you meet certain conditions, such as rewriting the entire will or using an amendment called a codicil. You may want to update your will with your attorney if:

  • You get married or divorced
  • A birth or death in your family affects your plan
  • You have a large increase or decrease in the value of your property
  • The person you name as executor, guardian or trustee dies or becomes unavailable to serve
  • The laws associated with estate taxes change
  • You change your state of legal residence
  • You wish to change how you want your property distributed

Make the right preparations for your family and estate. Your legal assistance office can help you create a will that suits your desires and needs. If your legal assistance attorney isn’t able to provide the help you need, they can likely help you find a civilian attorney.

The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent legal advice of a licensed attorney. Service members and their families seeking legal advice should consult the staff of the nearest installation Legal Assistance Office.

What to Expect When Meeting With Your Lawyer

Female soldier giving counsel

The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent legal advice of a licensed attorney. Service members and their families seeking legal advice should consult the staff of the nearest installation Legal Assistance Office.

Knowing what to expect when you meet with an attorney can make your meeting more productive and efficient. Get the most out of your time together by following these tips before and during your meeting.

  • Come prepared. Bring all papers and documents related to your situation. If you aren’t sure whether or not to bring something, bring it just in case.
  • Be honest. Speak openly to your lawyer about your situation, and tell him or her everything you know. The only way you can get accurate legal advice is if you tell the full story to the best of your knowledge.
  • Understand privileged communications. Any information you provide to your attorney is private and privileged under law. This is in accordance with professional guidelines and rules of conduct. Your lawyer can’t disclose the contents of your meeting to anyone. If you give your lawyer specific permission to tell someone, then he or she may do so. However, there are a few exceptions to privileged communication. For instance, if the information you reveal suggests that harm could come to you or someone else.
  • Expect advice and discussions only in person. Your attorney likely won’t discuss cases or give advice over the phone or by email. This is for your privacy and protection.
  • Seek advice before you have a problem. It can sometimes be easier to prevent a legal problem before it happens than to solve an existing one. Don’t hesitate to seek legal advice before you act.
  • Understand that some legal services may not be available. Attorneys at a legal assistance office may not be able to help with your particular situation. Their services are intended to address personal, civil and consumer matters. Some issues are outside the scope of legal assistance. However, a legal assistance attorney can refer you to civilian counsel to handle those matters.
  • Be aware of potential costs. Although most services within a legal assistance office are provided at no cost to service members, you’ll have to pay any court or agency fees. You may also need private civilian counsel. If so, ask your legal assistance attorney if your case qualifies for pro bono representation under the American Bar Association’s Legal Assistance for Military Personnel.
  • Know your attorney. Your legal assistance attorney will be either a military judge advocate or a civilian attorney authorized by the judge advocate general to provide legal assistance, such as advising clients on personal legal affairs.

Where to find legal assistance

  • Legal assistance offices — These are located on almost every installation and ship. Use the Armed Forces Legal Services locator to search by branch of service, state or ZIP code.
  • MilitaryINSTALLATIONS — Search for a “Program or service.” Choose from “Legal Services/JAG.” Find your installation, and select “Legal.”

The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent legal advice of a licensed attorney. Service members and their families seeking legal advice should consult the staff of the nearest installation Legal Assistance Office.

Military Legal Resources Available to You

Hand stamping paperwork

The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent legal advice of a licensed attorney. Service members and their families seeking legal advice should consult the staff of the nearest installation Legal Assistance Office.

When legal issues arise, service members and their families have a number of free resources at the ready. Legal assistance is available whether you need an expert to review a contract or help with estate planning. If you need to finalize deployment-related legal documents, legal assistance can help. You can also get advice on mediation for child custody. Here are some of your options.

Free legal help from the legal assistance office

Your installation’s legal assistance office can serve you in many situations where you may need legal advice. They may also help in completing legal documents. Representation in court is not available for service members or family members. However, active and retired service members and family members are eligible for free legal assistance, including:

  • Drafting powers of attorney
  • Drafting wills
  • Guiding estate planning
  • Providing family law advice (in areas such as adoption, marriage, divorce, alimony and property division)
  • Reviewing contracts and leases
  • Providing notary services
  • Offering consumer advice (ranging from debt management and credit reporting to ID theft)
  • Helping with taxes
  • Assisting in immigration and naturalization issues
  • Advising in civil lawsuits
  • Protecting service member rights and responsibilities
  • Advising clients on misdemeanors and minor traffic offenses

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act offers help with a range of rights and benefits, from interest rate reductions to eviction protection. Know your rights and available perks.

For document translation services, contact Military OneSource Specialty Consultations. You can get help translating a lease during an overseas move, or with documents such as a birth certificate or marriage license. Call a Military OneSource consultant at 800-342-9647 for document translation or legal matters.

Where legal assistance offices cannot help

There are other issues where legal assistance offices won’t be able to assist. They include:

  • Providing legal advice to third parties or opposing parties on the same issue
  • Claims against the government and serious criminal matters
  • Legal matters concerning your privately owned business
  • In-court representation (although legal assistance attorneys generally do not represent clients in court, some service branches offer the Expanded Legal Assistance Program, which allows for in-court representation in limited cases). See below for help finding a private civilian lawyer.

Use the Armed Forces Legal Assistance Locator to find the nearest legal assistance office.

Help with other legal matters: private lawyers, military defense counsel

For criminal matters or other issues not available through your installation’s legal assistance office, you’ll most likely want to consider a private civilian attorney. If you’re facing discharge or criminal prosecution by the military, you can seek assistance from military defense counsel.

Seeking nonmilitary counsel: Services provided within a legal assistance office are free. You may also need to pay for private civilian counsel. If so, ask your legal assistance attorney if your case qualifies for pro bono or reduced fee representation. If not, ask about private civilian legal representation available in your community.

Seeking military defense counsel: Military defense counsels are legal offices separate from your local legal assistance office, and are available if you are facing prosecution by the military. As a service member, you have the right to be represented at your court-martial.

Military defense counsels are certified judge advocates who provide independent legal representation and confidential legal advice for service members suspected of an offense or facing adverse administrative actions.

Military defense counsel can help you in many situations, including pretrial investigations, investigations, and administrative separation proceedings. They can also help with letters of reprimand, denial or revocation of a security clearance, and court-martial proceedings.

Each of the service branches has a different name for the defense counsel offices:

Find the contact information for your nearest defense counsel in your installation telephone directory. Your installation trial defense service office, defense services office or area defense counsel office may have a local website with helpful information.

The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent legal advice of a licensed attorney. Service members and their families seeking legal advice should consult the staff of the nearest installation Legal Assistance Office.