Not Married to Your Partner? What That Means for Your End-of-Life Rights

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More Americans than ever are living together without tying the knot: A Pew Research Center analysis of census data and the Current Population Survey found that 18 million Americans lived with an unmarried partner in 2016, a jump of 29 percent from 2007. And it’s not only 20-somethings who are driving up the cohabitation stats. In fact, the fastest-growing age group of cohabiters is adults age 50 and over. This cohort grew by a staggering 75 percent between 2007 and 2016.

While many, many factors go into the decision of whether or not to marry, it’s important to note that the lack of a marriage license can impact your and your partner’s rights around certain end-of-life issues. Here’s what you need to know:

Inheritance rights

Unlike married couples in most states, unmarried partners will not automatically receive inheritance after a partner passes away. That means claiming ownership of any property or valuables may require a lengthy and sometimes costly probate process. But avoiding that legal headache isn’t hard: Both partners can draft a will in advance, naming each other as beneficiaries of the estate. This way, your assets will be transferred to your partner regardless of your marital status.

Another option unwed couples can use to establish inheritance rights without marriage are through joint tenancy for titled property such as real estate, vehicles, and bank accounts, or through a transfer-on-death deed in which you can designate a beneficiary in the property’s deed itself.

Death benefits

Unmarried couples aren’t automatically eligible to receive death benefits, such as pensions or Social Security benefits. With life insurance, though, making sure that a partner receives the policy’s payout is as simple as listing him or her as a beneficiary. You’ll want to take the same step with any retirement accounts you have, such as IRAs and 401(k)s and any pension plans. This gives your partner the legal right to receive the life insurance, annuity or pension when you die.

When it comes to Social Security benefits, don’t assume that no marriage license means no support: The federal agency does give people in “non-marital legal relationships” (NMLR)—such as civil unions, domestic partnerships and reciprocal beneficiaries—the same treatment as those in a legal marriage. But how the agency interprets your status may vary depending on which state you live in and whether that state would consider you entitled to inherit personal property in the absence of a will.    

Hospital visitation rights

Thanks to a rule implemented by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2011, marital status does not determine who is eligible to visit a person in a federally funded hospital. The new rule also protects hospitalized people and their visitors from discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. All visitors must now receive equal visitation privileges, regardless of whether they have a legal or biological relationship with the person receiving treatment, as long as that person wants to see the visitor.

Unmarried partners should discuss who they would want to make decisions about hospital visitors on their behalf if they are unconscious or unable to specify. This designation is known as a “support person,” and does not require legal documentation, though a hospital may require proof of a relationship if a dispute arises. In this case, you do not need to prove a biological or legally recognized relationship—rather, you could show that you share a home or finances.

If you want your partner to be able to make decisions about your health care if you become incapacitated, be sure to make it official by creating a health care proxy.

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