17 million. That’s the number of unmarried partners living together in the United States as of 2017, up from 6 million in 1996. If anything, these figures point to the fact that more and more couples now prefer to live together instead of tying the knot.

couple talking and holding hands

Despite the bad rap that marriage gets in some quarters, the truth is that it can provide couples with a bevy of benefits that are otherwise unavailable in a cohabitation setup. Some examples include collecting each other’s inheritance, filing joint taxes, social security benefits, and even having their immigration status adjusted. Unfortunately, partners that choose to cohabit are not automatically granted access to these benefits.

However, by having a rigorous, well-expounded estate plan, you can secure plenty of rights that legally married couples enjoy. Below, we dive into the nitty-gritty of estate planning for unmarried couples.

What is Your Relationship Status?

Are you and your partner legally married, or are you basically in a boyfriend-girlfriend type of cohabitation agreement? In some states, if partners have lived together long enough and have held themselves out to friends, family, and the community as “being married,” the surviving partner may be able to argue “common law marriage.”

Common law marriage is established under state law, and is currently recognized in one form or another in 10 states and the District of Columbia. In these states, the burden of proof may be too strict for the surviving partner. In other words, even if you and your partner reside in one of these states, you cannot rely solely on the possibility of proving a “common law marriage.” Instead, you should consult an attorney to create a comprehensive estate plan to protect each other upon death.

8 Estate Planning Tips for Unmarried Couples

Estate plans must always be personalized to fit individual needs, but here are some general tips that can help you plan for the future as an unmarried couple.

  • Re-title Family Home to Avoid Probate

If one of you is listed on the deed to the marital home, the unnamed partner may be passed over during probate, and the nearest blood relative will inherit the house. When you establish joint tenancy, the estate transfers immediately to your partner upon your death—with the added bonus being that the property will avoid probate.

  • Include Each Other In Your Last Wills

A will is one of the first and strongest estate planning documents you can have. Not only does it allow you to leave assets and property to your spouse, but it also helps you plan out which of your beneficiaries will receive specific portions of your estate.

A will can also be incredibly beneficial if you have minor children, allowing you to decide who will take care of them in the event of your death. If you do not make this decision in a will and the child’s other parent is not living or available, a court will appoint a guardian. This could mean that someone you would not have chosen will be raising your kids.

Due to the importance of this document (especially for unmarried couples), you should consult an estate planning attorney for help. If your will is not properly drafted, then your estate could fall into intestacy. This means the probate court will determine who inherits what from your estate. With this option, there’s a high chance your partner could miss out on some or all of your assets.

  • Utilize Living Trusts

Suppose you do not want to deal with the tax headache of gifting your partner property that you did not purchase together during your lifetime. In that case, you can still ensure that they own it after you die without worrying about probate by utilizing a revocable living trust. A trust is a legal entity that can hold assets and property “in trust” for a beneficiary.

A living trust acts much the same as the last will in protecting your cohabiting life partner. However, with a trust, you are transferring title to the real estate now rather than upon death.

  • Award Your Partner Powers of Attorney

This can be done by appointing your partner as attorney-in-fact. This allows the individual the right to act for you in financial or medical situations if you’re unable to do so yourself. In addition, naming your partner as your healthcare proxy gives them the right to pay your hospital bills, receive information on your health and treatment, and make end-of-life decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated.

  • Draft a Letter of Instruction

Leaving a letter of instruction for your partner allows them to manage the estate properly. Typically, these letters will include detailed instructions of passwords or passcodes to safes or online accounts, where you keep your assets, potential bills that need to be addressed, or any other information pertaining to how you would like your estate handled upon your passing.

  • Have a Digital Estate Plan

This relatively new concept is coming out of the fact that we all now have a rather complex web of digital existence. Be sure to include your partner in how you wish your digital accounts—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and email—to be disposed of after you die.

  • Name Your Partner as the Pay-On-Death Beneficiary

Most of your financial accounts—including your bank account(s), your IRA, and your insurance policies—allow you to name someone as a pay-on-death beneficiary. This makes it easy for your partner to access these funds upon your demise. It’s important to note that these designations often take precedence over a trust or will, so be sure to review them frequently.

Contact Our Estate Planning Lawyers to Get Started

You do not have to be married to want to protect your partner, but you do have to take action. Most state laws do not treat unmarried couples the same way as married couples. If you get sick or die without the right documents in place, your partner may be unable to make medical decisions for you or inherit your property without the consent of your family.

To prevent potential problems, please contact Petrelli Previtera, LLC today. Our attorneys take a proactive approach to estate planning, allowing you and your family to make decisions with clarity, confidence, and character. We will listen to all of your concerns, provide you with all of your legal options, and create a customized estate plan that meets your unique needs.