Eight million couples in the United States live together without being married, according to the US Census data. As the average age at first marriage rises, more and more couples are choosing to cohabit, sometimes before marriage and sometimes instead of marriage.
Unfortunately, the law has not kept up with rapidly changing social trends. Probate law does not protect unmarried couples, even if they have lived together for years. Married couples, by contrast, are provided for under state intestacy statutes. For example, if a husband dies without making a will, state law will ensure that his wife receives some or all of his property.
However, a man who has lived with his partner for many years without marrying her and dies without making a will may end up leaving her nothing. His assets- including any share of a home or banks accounts he owns with his partner- will probably go to his children, or perhaps his parents or siblings. It does not matter what he wanted to happen; it only matters that the paperwork was not there to back up those wishes. (There is a narrow exception in New Hampshire law for couples who have cohabited for three years or more and acknowledged each other as husband and wife, but relying on such a provision is risky.)
This sounds terribly dire. However, it's absolutely possible (and certainly recommended!) that unmarried couples visit an attorney to ensure that they are protected in the event of death, incapacity, or even breakup. Planning can ensure that a partner receives and inheritance or has access to the money he or she needs to pay the bills if something unexpected happens. Unmarried couples who wish to have the authority to access their partner’s medical records and to make health care decisions in the event of incapacity will need to have health care powers of attorney drafted. This is all easy to do and can save a lot of money and heartache down the road.