Do Unmarried Couples Have Legal Protections?

by Erin Wallace
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People who are in long-term relationships and live together but aren't married may have some legal protections, but it depends on a number of things, mostly which state they live in. Marriage laws are implemented and regulated at the state level. However, there have been some notable Supreme Court cases that declared state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage unconstitutional (Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015) and another that declared state laws barring interracial marriages unconstitutional (Loving v. Virginia in 1967).

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But aside from those cases, marriage licenses and laws are handled at the state level, so whether unmarried couples have legal protections is entirely based on the state the couple lives in.

Do Unmarried Couples Who Live Together Have Any of the Legal Protections Afforded to Married Couples?

Generally, the answer is no. Married couples have more legal rights than unmarried ones. Legal rights for married couples generally include things such as:

  • Co-ownership of a house or land
  • Entitlement to each other's estate
  • Exemption from testifying against each other in court
  • Being named next of kin
  • Tax benefits
  • Entitlements after a divorce
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Common-Law Marriage

Common-law marriage is when two people don't have a marriage license or certificate and haven't had a marriage ceremony, but they live in every other capacity as if they're married.

Common-law marriage is only recognized in certain states, and usually, cohabitation alone is not enough to define a common-law marriage.

Only eight states in the United States fully recognize common-law marriages without limitations:

  • Colorado
  • District of Columbia
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas

Other states recognize common-law marriage on a limited basis, such as if the relationship was formed before a certain date.

  • Alabama (only if the relationship began before Jan. 1, 2017)
  • Florida (if the relationship began before Jan. 1, 1968)
  • Georgia (if the relationship began before Jan. 1, 1997)
  • Idaho (if the relationship began before Jan. 1, 1996)
  • Indiana (if the relationship began before Jan. 1, 1958)
  • New Hampshire (only for inheritance purposes)
  • Ohio (if the relationship began before Oct. 10, 1991)
  • Pennsylvania (if the relationship began before Jan. 1, 2005)
  • South Carolina (if the relationship began before July 24, 2019)

Each state's definition of what “common-law marriage” means is different — but a few common threads include that both parties must have legal capacity, be at least 18 years old, express intent to be married and act as a married couple and live together. Some states specify cohabitation length, such as 10 years, while other states, like Iowa, call it “continuous cohabitation,” and the District of Columbia notes that cohabitation must be for “a significant period of time.”

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Domestic Partnership

A domestic partnership can offer many of the same legal and financial benefits as a marriage without actually being married. For example, before same-sex marriage was legalized, many same-sex couples entered into domestic partnerships. The benefits of a domestic partnership union vary by state and jurisdiction within that state, so it's important to check your state and local laws on domestic partnerships to see if they're recognized and what benefits you might get from entering into one.

Some common benefits that exist in multiple states include:

  • Health care coverage: If one of you has health insurance, you may be able to put your significant other on your insurance if you're domestic partners in the eyes of the law.
  • Right to family leave: If you or your partner gets sick, the other person could be entitled to family leave benefits.
  • Visitation rights in hospitals or jails: If you or your partner is hospitalized or incarcerated, you'd be considered a family member in those settings and be allowed to visit them.

States vary widely on their domestic partnership laws. For example, in California, domestic partners are given the same benefits and protections as married couples, but federal law doesn't recognize these unions. For example, if one partner dies, the other partner couldn't collect their Social Security benefits.

Some states may call domestic partnerships "civil unions," like Colorado, Hawaii and Illinois (but some individual counties in Illinois do offer domestic partnerships). Other states, like Delaware, don't provide any rights to domestic partners, but all previous civil unions were converted into civil marriages when same-sex marriage was legalized. In Maine, only the city of Portland provides domestic partnership benefits to residents.

You can see how granular and localized domestic partnership laws are for unmarried couples. To find out whether your state offers domestic partnership benefits, consult your state's website or contact a legal professional for assistance.

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