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Protect yourself and your unmarried partner

Cohabiting couples who take a long time to get married or just never feel the need to "make it legal" are increasingly common. In fact, the majority of couples that do get married cohabit first, and the household that's run by a married couple stopped being the norm in 2005.

More children are also living with unmarried parents as well. Forty-one percent of first births by unmarried women are born to cohabiting partners and two-fifths of American children will live in a household with unmarried parents at some time.

If you're part of that trend, what have you done to make sure that your partner, children and step-children are able to survive financially if something happens to you? What steps have you taken to make sure that you're protected in return? What about the children that aren't biologically yours? If you've formed an emotional bond with your partner's children, you don't want to lose that connection if you and your partner lose your relationship.

Even if you're fairly certain that your relationship with your partner is solid and forever, that's no guarantee against future problems from outside the home. What happens if you're in a serious accident and your biological relatives decide that they should be in charge of your medical decisions, instead of the person who shared your life? If you have a blended family, what happens if your partner dies and his or her biological relatives want custody of any children not biologically related to you? You might have to watch children you've raised as siblings separated from each other on the basis of bloodlines instead of emotional bonds.

Unfortunately, you cannot always predict how people will act once someone has died. If your partner dies, you could find yourself in a fight to stay in your home or keep personal possessions and other assets away from his or her relatives who never viewed you as anything more than "that person" living with their brother or sister, mother or father. The same thing could happen to your partner.

Unmarried couples should always have their legal needs assessed by an attorney. While there's generally no guarantee that you can stop a legal fight, a little bit of advance probate and estate planning can lay the foundation for a good defense and might give someone reason to reconsider their stance.

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