Why common-law marriage is a myth

Often times we end up writing articles that try and explain the kind of mess you can get into if you don’t have a Will. So often, the complexities of the law can be avoided completely if you write a Last Will and Testament. Common-law marriage is a case in point.

According to some statistics, about one in six people co-habit without getting married; clearly there are many reasons for this which we won’t get into, but if ever there was a case for preparing a Will, a common-law marriage is it. I will now attempt to distill the vagaries of the law across different jurisdictions.

In the UK, the law is simple and unequivocal;  ‘common law marriage’ has no recognition in law and unless you have both made Wills neither of you will have any automatic rights to inherit from the other. The intestacy rules dictate what happens if you die without a valid Will and they make no provision whatsoever for a ‘partner’; it is only a ‘spouse’ who will automatically inherit. You may have co-habitated for 50 years, but in the eyes of the law, you are complete strangers if one of you dies without a Will (you may be able to make some claim based on a “dependency”, but this would require a challenge to the default distribution of the estate). Incidentally, if you do inherit money or property from an unmarried partner, you are not exempt from paying inheritance tax, as married couples are.

In Canada, it is slightly more complicated. British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Territories do recognize common-law relationships, however, Ontario, Alberta, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and PEI do not recognize common-law partnerships and surviving partners will face the same challenges as those described for the UK (above).

The US also has very complicated State specific laws which I can’t go into here. I have spent literally hours looking through State laws to find a good explanation that would fit into this blog, but it cannot be done. In summary there is a common misperception that if you live together for a certain length of time (seven years is what many people believe), you are common-law married. This is not true anywhere in the United States. There are 11 states that recognize the existence of a common-law marriage, and this allows the surviving partner to inherit if there is no Will. For the other States there is no protection for surviving common-law partners.

In short, if you are cohabiting, in a “domestic partnership”, living in a putative Marriage (one that is simply implied) or a common-law situation, you absolutely must write your Will to protect the rights of your surviving partner. You should also prepare a Power of Attorney and Living Will because depending on your jurisdiction, your common-law spouse may have no rights if you were ever to be incapacitated.

Fortunately, a Last Will and Testament, Financial Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney, Living Will and Advance Directives can all be created through the online tools at www.legalwills.ca , www.uslegalwills.com and www.legalwills.co.uk. The whole process takes no more than a few minutes and can protect the rights of your partner. It is a serious issue that should not be put-off.

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Same-sex marriage and the Last Will and Testament

Last week, the State of New York passed same-sex marriage legislation; from July 24th 2011, same-sex couples will enjoy the same rights as those in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. In Canada, all Provinces and Territories recognize same-sex marriage under the 2005 Civil Marriage Act which defines marriage as “”the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others”. In the UK same-sex couples can be joined in a “Civil union” or “registered partnership”.

Why is this of interest to the legalwills blog? well, the most significant implication is for those who choose not to write a Will. There were many cases in the past of a person dying intestate (without a Will) having lived for decades with a life partner. The law used to say that only married partners could have a claim on the estate, and until recently, same-sex couples had no claim (common-law partners still have no claim in most jurisdictions). The “civil union” in the UK and other same-sex marriage legislation gives rights to survivors when no Will has been written. Of course, at LegalWills we would have just advised everybody to write a Will in 30 minutes and save their surviving partner the anguish, but sadly, in many cases people procrastinate when it comes to putting their estate planning affairs in order.

But same-sex marriage legislation also provides some rights for partners who have been left out of a Will. In most jurisdictions it is not possible to completely disinherit one’s spouse, and this now extends to same-sex relationships where applicable.

There are also clear implications for same-sex couples with children. In a Last Will and Testament a guardian for the care of minor children is named, but this only comes into effect when both parents are unable to provide care. With same-sex marriage the parental rights can now extend to both parents.

The recognition of civil unions also has implications for Powers of Attorney and Living Will forms – if you are ever unable to speak for yourself, for example, if you were in a coma. One’s married partner is usually the first point of contact for physicians who need to consult with a family member on important healthcare decisions.

The law is still quite varied across different jurisdictions and the discussion is probably worthy of a Masters thesis rather than a blog post. However, many basic rules still apply for same-sex couples;

  1. Make sure that you have a Will, Power of Attorney and Living Will in place.
  2. If you planning to disinherit your married partner; seek legal advice as the wishes that you have outlined in your Will may not be enforceable.
  3. If you do get married or divorced, make sure that you update all of your estate planning documents. Marriage typically revokes (cancels) any existing Will.

This is a very rapidly changing legal landscape, and so if you read this in a few months, it may be out of date. If you have any comments to add, please feel free. I am happy to provide any clarifications or corrections.