Diane Dimond: Cohabiting? To protect yourself, get married
You’ve probably heard that if a couple lives together for — blank — number of years they are, in effect, legally married in the eyes of the state. Some people think that their relationship magically becomes a common-law marriage after seven years together; others believe it happens at 10 years. I’m here to tell you that’s baloney.
I’m certainly no Ann Landers. She had vastly more experience giving personal advice. But if you think living with someone without being legally married protects you in the eyes of the law, you are sadly mistaken. If you’re looking for long-term stability, you should get married.
For years now, states have been doing away with laws recognizing common-law marriage. In fact, no state has ever set forth a certain number of years for cohabitation to equal a legal marriage. No one seems to know where that seven- or 10-year idea came from. It’s just a myth.
The Census Bureau reports that in 2015 there were more than 8 million unmarried couple households in the U.S. That’s 16 million people living without the shield of laws written to protect those who are lawfully wedded.
If you are one of the 16 million, consider this: when married, you are automatically eligible to share your spouse’s car, home and health insurance. If you are married and your spouse dies, you inherit all bank accounts, investments and real estate, unless a last will and testament bequeaths those assets to others. Those left widowed qualify to receive Social Security survivor benefits, and oftentimes any pension left behind. Married couples also enjoy major federal and state tax breaks. If you are not legally married, you are possibly not entitled to any of this, with a couple of minor exceptions described below.
If you are cohabiting with someone and they suddenly die, you have no legal protection to continue living in the home if your name is not on the lease or mortgage — that is unless you happen to live in one of the few states that still recognizes common-law marriage.
There are less than a dozen of these states, including Colorado, District of Columbia, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. And in these states, unmarried couples must meet certain criteria for their union to be considered common-law. According to Nolo, an online legal encyclopedia for consumers, couples must present themselves to their community as a married couple, which typically includes using the same last name, filing a joint tax return, and referring to each other as “my husband” and “my wife.”
New Hampshire recognizes common-law marriage for inheritance purposes only. The state of Kentucky only recognizes it for the purpose of awarding workers’ compensation benefits. And a handful of other states that eliminated common-law marriage — Georgia, Idaho, Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania — recognize the rights of unmarried couples only if they began cohabiting before such unions were abolished. Starting next year, Alabama will join this category.
I know, when you’re young and in love, who needs a piece of paper from the state to say you’re married, right? After a few years, legal marriage seems like an unnecessary step. Well, the honest answer is, everyone needs that piece of paper if they want to have a more secure financial future.
Take the case of Angela Luis and Kevin Gaugler of East Providence, Rhode Island, where common-law marriages are recognized. They lived together in the same home for 23 years but never married. Gaugler reportedly strayed with a local bartender, and Luis indicated it wasn’t her first suspicion of a peccadillo. After they split, Luis insisted in court that their union was, for all intents and purposes, a marriage. Gaugler insisted they “were just roommates.”
The couple spent a year and a half in court, during which time Luis presented evidence to prove that she had gotten an engagement ring, and that they had always shared living expenses and called each other husband and wife. She was on his health insurance, and he named her sole beneficiary in his will. Even though they never had a joint bank account or filed taxes together, the judge ruled in Luis’ favor. Gaugler appealed the June 2016 decision, which split the couple’s joint assets, including the proceeds from the sale of their home, and Gaugler’s retirement.
Their saga will continue because they were never legally married. A marriage certificate would have made all the difference.
So, simply living with a partner is up to you. Just know that after you throw your in your lot, you likely have no legal protection.