One reason for the popularity of living together without marriage, is that many in this generation have experienced one or more difficult divorces, so they’re not always willing to remarry, says Next Avenue in the article “The Legal Dangers of Living Together.” However, like many aspects of estate planning, what seems like a simple solution can become quite complex. Unmarried couples can face a variety of problematic and emotionally challenging issues, because estate planning laws are written to favor married couples.
Consider what happens when an unmarried couple does not plan for the possibility of one partner losing the ability to manage his or her health care because of a serious health issue.
If a spouse is rushed to the hospital unconscious and there is no health care power of attorney giving the other spouse the right to make medical decisions on his or her behalf, a husband or wife will likely be permitted to make them anyway.
However, an unmarried couple will not have any right to make medical decisions on behalf of their partner. The hospital is not likely to bend the rules, because if a blood relative of the person challenged the medical facility’s decision, they are wide open to liability issues.
Money is also a problem in the absence of marriage. If one partner becomes incapacitated and estate planning has not been done, without both partners having power of attorney, an illness could upend their life together. If one partner became incapacitated, bank accounts will be frozen, and the well partner will have no right to access any assets. A court action might be required, but what if a family member objects?
Without appropriate advance planning, courts are generally forced to rely on blood kin to take both financial and medical decision-making roles. An unmarried partner would have no rights. If the home was owned by the ill partner, the unmarried partner may find themselves having to find new housing. If the well partner depended upon the ill partner for their support, then they will have also lost their financial security.
Unmarried couples need to execute key estate planning documents, while both are healthy and competent. These documents include a durable power of attorney, a medical power of attorney and a living will, which applies to end of life decisions. A living trust could be used to avoid the problem of finances for the well partner.
Another document needed for unmarried couples: a HIPAA release. HIPAA is a federal health privacy law that prevents medical facilities and health care professionals from sharing a patient’s medical information with anyone not designated on the person’s HIPAA release form. Unmarried couples should ask an estate planning attorney for these forms to be sure they are the most current.
If one of the partners dies, and if there is no will, the estate is known as intestate. Assets are distributed according to the laws of the state, and there is no legal recognition of an unmarried partner. They won’t be legally entitled to inherit any of the assets.
If a married partner dies without a will in a community property state, the surviving spouse is automatically entitled to inherit as much as half the value of the deceased assets.
Beneficiary designations usually control the distribution of assets including life insurance policies, retirement accounts and employer-sponsored group life insurance policies. If the partners have not named each other as beneficiary designations, then the surviving partner will be left with nothing.
The lesson for couples hoping to avoid any legal complications by not getting married, is that they may be creating far more problems than are solved as they age together. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to make sure that all the correct planning is in place to protect both partners, even without the benefit of marriage.
Reference: Next Avenue (Aug. 28, 2019) “The Legal Dangers of Living Together.”
Suggested Key Terms: Health Care Power of Attorney, Incapacitated, Durable Power of Attorney, Community Property, Beneficiary Designations. Estate Planning Attorney, HIPAA, Living Trust