To Marry, or not to Marry? That is the Question

People appear increasingly less willing to take the plunge and tie the knot, meanwhile national marriage statistics continue to take a plunge instead.

 

It is becoming more common for couples to exhibit all of the usual symptoms of a marriage without actually getting married. The causes behind this cultural shift are likely as complicated as the legal ramifications that transpire.  According to the US 2010 Census data, over 7.5 million unmarried couples live together.  Other trends demonstrate that unmarried couples are now more frequently sharing finances, making joint purchases, and starting families. Some couples even go as far as having a wedding reception and wearing wedding rings, but never sign any legal documents.

This issue begs a number of legal questions. Unmarried couples are exposed to a variety of uncertainties typically addressed by traditional marriage. These uncertainties include how to recognize divided or shared property and finances, discretion of care in cases of emergency and other decision making responsibilities between spouses. Additionally, it also leaves a mess of questions to be answered should the couple break up.

A couple that isn’t legally married will not receive any of the benefits that come with marriage, such as various tax breaks and other privileges.  However, there are still several ways an unmarried couple can protect themselves financially and legally.

Legally recognized spouses are usually automatic beneficiaries in estate plans.  An unmarried couple may want to write a will that ensures that their partner will receive property when the other dies. Otherwise, assets may be inherited by closer family members without that being the actual intention of the deceased.

Unmarried couples can consider creating a “living together contract” that outlines property division to avoid court battles in the event of a break up.  A living together contract should include the property or finances that one party had before the relationship began, and those bought, inherited or received during the relationship.  Living together contracts often include a method for resolving disagreements, such as mediation or collaborative law.

In Maryland, a child born during wedlock is presumed to be a legitimate child.  Unmarried couples should consider signing a paternity statement to protect a father’s rights in the event of a break up.

Unlike a marriage, unmarried couples are not responsible for each other’s debt and often enjoy a certain degree of financial independence.  However, this financial independence disappears when unmarried couples sign joint purchase agreements, cosign on a loan, or a partner’s debt is charged to a joint bank account. It is important for these couples to decide how to deal with debt.

Unmarried couples with no intention of marrying might find it helpful to seek the advice of a family law attorney who can help them draft contracts, paternity statements, or create an estate plan to ensure that each partner is treated fairly.

About Maryland Family and Real Estate Law
General information and commentary on child custody, support, divorce, separation, visitation, real estate, landlord/tenant and loss mitigation

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