Legal

Much Ado About Legal Partners

Marriage isn't for everyone. A domestic partnership, however, may be the perfect blend of protection without the fear of commitment!

Recently I have been experiencing a phenomenon of unmarried, older couples who represent themselves as spouses or domestic partners but, due to some legal stuff we’ll discuss below, are really just cohabitating.

Not to be that guy from Ancient Aliens, but it’s starting to feel like some kind of glitch in the matrix. So, obviously, we’ve gotta talk about it! It all started with a long-term girlfriend misrepresented as spouse on a death certificate which held up an already messy probate process, and ended with two other, unrelated partnerships – one gay and one straight – challenged on the technicality of whether or not the couples were legally partnered, regardless of ample circumstantial evidence supporting… well, a partnership.

You know what they say, “once is chance, twice is a coincidence,” and three times means you’re playing with yourself?

Just kidding.

A pattern. Three times is a pattern, and this pattern suggests, in the truest New Yorker fashion, that there is potentially a significant percentage of unmarried couples out there who think it is legally satisfactory to simply declare that they’re in a committed relationship.

Hmm. Sure, that tracks.

I’m not here to shame anyone, but in order for your relationship to be fully acknowledged, you must absolutely seek legal status.

Sorry, New Yorkers.

If you are someone who feels philosophically opposed to making it “official,” I get it. There are plenty of legitimate objections to dropping anchor. Commitment doesn’t have to come with a ring, and marriage or legal partnership certainly doesn’t make your relationship any more ‘real,’ except for in the eyes of the law, which is where it actually matters.

As of writing this article, only eight states (and Washington DC) continue to allow common law marriage, and New York is definitely not on that list. However, there remains an urban legend of sorts in the country’s collective zeitgeist that if a couple lives together for a certain length of time, they’re then common-law married, regardless of geographic locale. Mazel! Unfortunately, this is not actually true anywhere in the country.

Just say, for example, if Goldie Hawn died tomorrow, Kurt Russell would not be allowed to take the lead in making her funeral arrangements. Her children would have first dibs. Why? Because their relationship is without legal status, notwithstanding 37 years of partnership, and California, like 42 other states, does not recognize common law marriage.

In these enlightened times of gay liberation, domestic partnerships may seem antiquated or a lesser alternative, but for those who aren’t interested in or ready for capital ‘M’ marriage, but still want to protect their family, the benefits of a domestic partnership are still pretty major.

For unmarried couples, non-monogamous homo life-partners, or even the eternally roommated among us, becoming legal domestic partners creates a clear path to receiving various benefits that guarantee right of survivorship, hospital visitation, and others, without needing to armor oneself with a slew of legal paperwork. Additionally, domestic partners are eligible to partake in each other’s employer-sponsored benefits, so that’s pretty sweet.

For less traditional families that incorporate more than two intimate partners, or just platonic ones, the law is finally catching up. Earlier this year, Somerville, Massachusetts amended its domestic partnership ordinance to cover all types of families, including polyamorous relationships of 3+ people and platonic relationships that are neither romantic nor sexual. Furthermore, the ordinance goes the extra step to use only gender-neutral pronouns.

Still resistant to putting your commitment on paper?

It was a sign from the universe. In the course of writing this post, the fates aligned and introduced me to estate planning and probate attorney, Anthony S. Park. He had sent a press copy of his new book (which is actually very good), “How Probate Works: A Guide for Executor, Heirs, and Families,” to my funeral home. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask his opinion on what steps unmarried couples can take to protect each other in the estate planning process, short of a trip to city hall, especially if there are family members who may object to the relationship.

Anthony’s Advice:

1.) Get official on paper – Well, no duh.

2.) Make a will or trust. If you foresee family feuding over your still-warm body, a living trust is the strongest protection.

3.) Name partner as the beneficiary on all accounts: checking and savings, life insurance, any investment or retirement accounts, and Health Savings Accounts (HSA’s).

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