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What Happens If My Partner Dies and We’re Not Married?

Unmarried Couples

Traditional or non-traditional couples have the option of marrying, but not all couples wish to, according to a recent article from Kiplinger, “Marriage: When You’d Rather Not.”

Planning for a life together without the legal protections provided by marriage means couples of all kinds who decide not to marry must be sure to do estate planning. Otherwise, they may find themselves in life-altering situations concerning property ownership, parental rights, and inheritances. An estate plan is one of the most important protections for unmarried couples. It’s a gift to give each other.

Start with a last will and testament. Unmarried couples without children need a will, if they want to leave each other property. Otherwise, the laws of most states will have property going to the legal next-of-kin, which might be parents, siblings, or cousins. No matter how many decades the couple has been together, if they are not married, they have no legal inheritance rights.

Other estate planning basics are important to protect each other while living. Without documents like a financial power of attorney and a health care proxy for both partners, medical and other health care providers might not allow your partner to make critical health decisions on your behalf. For couples where families disapprove of their unmarried status, asking a parent to make these decisions, especially in an emergency situation, could magnify a crisis or worse, lead to a result neither partner wants.

Accounts with named beneficiaries, which typically include life insurance policies, retirement funds, investment accounts and similar financial products, aren’t distributed by the terms of your will. Instead, they pass directly to beneficiaries on death. Even traditional married couples run into trouble when beneficiary designations are not updated.

Every time there is a life change, including death, birth, break-up, or any big life event, updating beneficiaries is a good idea for all concerned.

Unmarried couples with children need to be especially diligent about estate planning. If a biological parent dies, their assets go to their biological children. However, when the non-biological parent dies, all of their assets could go to other relatives, unless a will is in place and beneficiaries are properly named. What about if the non-biological parent takes the step of legally adopting the children? They should still check on their parental rights. If accounts do not have beneficiaries named, the assets will go to next of kin, a parent or sibling and not the child or partner.

Home ownership is another financial issue to tackle for unmarried couples. They need a document clearly stating how the home is owned, how much each invested in the home, who is responsible for mortgage and tax payments, how to divide the home if it’s sold and who has the right to live in the home if the couple breaks up or if one dies or becomes disabled. If a home is solely in one person’s name and the other partner dies, the surviving partner may end up being evicted if the right protections are not in place.

For unmarried couples, meeting with an estate planning attorney is necessary to protect each other now and in the future.

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