Couples who decide to tie the knot and formalize their relationship in the eyes of the law acquire certain legal rights. Married couples have rights to each other’s assets and the right to claim spousal support in the event of a divorce. Couples who choose to live together without getting married do not have these rights and protections. What they can do to avoid disputes later on is to enter into a formal, binding agreement.

Unmarried couples DO NOT have the following rights:

  • Co-own property
  • Receive spousal support
  • Make medical, financial, or legal decisions

Property Ownership

Unmarried couples who have been living together for a while are likely to have accumulated a good amount of property. Because marriage protections do not exist in domestic partnerships, they need to have both their names on the property deed, title, or purchase contract.

Another way to acquire property rights is to draw out a property agreement that indicates who owns what and how you want to treat any property that you acquire in the future. A cohabitation property agreement also determines how to handle the property should the couple separate or one of them dies. Without a property agreement, state law will automatically award the property to the next of kin in case of death.

A well-drafted cohabitation property agreement should include the following:

  • Who owns which specific assets
  • How income and expenses are shared
  • How newly acquired assets are owned
  • How joint bank accounts, credit cards, insurance policies, and other financial assets are managed
  • How specific assets will be distributed in the event of a separation
  • Who will purchase the other’s interest and for how much
  • Who will move out and when

Right to Support

Married couples assume a legal responsibility to support one another even after the relationship ends. The right to spousal support, also known as alimony, is not available to unmarried couples.

While many people often drop the word “palimony” when claiming support from an ex-partner, it is not a legal term and carries no legal significance.

In order to avoid a tense disagreement about palimony, it is best for unmarried couples to agree on specific terms and put them in writing. The most common reason for seeking support is when one partner quits her/his job to stay at home, thereby limiting career growth and earning capacity.

Cohabitation agreements are recognized by many states and allow unmarried couples to claim financial support during the relationship and even after it ends.

Medical Decisions and Death

Cohabitation agreements can also protect unmarried couples when there is a health crisis. If you get sick and become incapacitated, your significant other has no legal right to make medical decisions for you. Doctors typically look to the closest living relative such as parents or siblings if the patient is unmarried with no children.

Unmarried couples can appoint a healthcare proxy, make a valid advanced directive, or have a durable power of attorney. This will allow your domestic partner to make medical decisions on your behalf.

A formal will can state what each of you promises to leave to the other in case of death such as real estate assets, retirement benefits, and life insurance.

If you have been living with your partner for some time and do not have any plans to get married, it is important that you consult with an experienced family law attorney. Know how you can protect each other in the absence of a marriage certificate. Talk to a family law attorney today.

Written by Kellie Bertels, an attorney at Bandre, Hunt and Snider in Jefferson City, MO. Bandre, Hunt and Snider are the best attorneys Jefferson City MO have to offer.