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Legal Rights for Unmarried Couples in California

In California, the legal rights of unmarried couples are distinct from those granted to married couples and registered domestic partners. While marriage and domestic partnership confer an extensive array of rights and responsibilities, unmarried couples must take specific legal steps to protect their interests and those of their partners. 

However, there are ways that you can work with your partner to protect yourselves and each other without getting married. Below, we break down how your legal rights are different from those of married spouses and some options you can consider for safeguarding your rights without committing to marriage. 

Legal Rights of Unmarried Couples vs. Married Couples/Domestic Partners

The legal landscape for unmarried couples significantly differs from that of married couples or registered domestic partners, especially in a state like California with its specific laws and protections. Here’s a comparison of the legal rights between these groups:

  1. Property Rights and Division: In California, married couples and registered domestic partners enjoy community property rights. This means that any income earned and assets acquired during the marriage/partnership are considered jointly owned and are divided equally in the event of a divorce or dissolution. Unmarried partners do not automatically have rights to each other’s property or income unless they have a cohabitation agreement or have jointly titled property.
  2. Inheritance and Estate Planning: Spouses and registered domestic partners have automatic inheritance rights under California law. They are also entitled to certain protections against disinheritance. Without a will or trust, an unmarried partner does not automatically inherit the other partner’s assets. Estate planning through wills and trusts becomes essential to ensure that assets are distributed according to their wishes.
  3. Healthcare and End-of-Life Decisions: Spouses and domestic partners have the legal authority to make healthcare decisions for each other if one becomes incapacitated. This right is not automatic for unmarried couples. They need to execute healthcare directives and powers of attorney to grant each other this authority.
  4. Parental Rights: The law presumes that both members of a married couple or domestic partnership are legal parents of a child born during the union. Parental rights may not be automatic, particularly for non-biological parents. Legal steps such as adoption or court orders may be necessary to establish these rights.
  5. Tax Benefits and Government Benefits: They can file joint tax returns, which can lead to tax benefits. They are also eligible for spousal benefits under Social Security and certain other government programs. Other partners do not have access to these tax and government program benefits.
  6. Formal Protections in the Event of a Breakup: The dissolution of a marriage or domestic partnership is governed by family law, which includes provisions for the division of property, spousal support, and child custody and support. Without formal marriage or domestic partnership, the breakup of the relationship falls outside these family law protections. 

Protective Measures for Unmarried Couples

While married couples and domestic partners in California have a wide range of legal protections and benefits, unmarried couples lack these automatic safeguards. Unmarried couples need to be proactive in creating legal arrangements that can offer similar protections to safeguard their rights and interests.

  1. Domestic Partnership Registration: California recognizes domestic partnerships, which can provide many of the same state-level legal rights as marriage. This includes rights related to healthcare, inheritance, and more.
  2. Cohabitation Agreements: Similar to prenuptial agreements, cohabitation agreements allow couples to outline how they will handle financial matters, property distribution, and other issues during their relationship or in the event of a breakup. These agreements can also form the basis for a strong prenuptial agreement should partners choose to get married in the future. 
  3. Joint Tenancy and Property Ownership: Acquiring property as joint tenants with a right of survivorship ensures that if one partner dies, the other automatically inherits their share, bypassing the probate process.
  4. Health Care Directives and Powers of Attorney: These documents are crucial for ensuring that partners have the legal authority to make health care decisions for each other in case of incapacity and manage each other’s financial affairs.
  5. Parental Rights: Unmarried partners must take legal steps to establish parental rights, especially for the non-biological parent in the case of LGBTQ+ couples or those who conceive via artificial means.
  6. Estate Planning: Wills and trusts can be used to ensure that assets are distributed according to the couple’s wishes upon death. Beneficiary designations on retirement accounts and insurance policies are also important.
  7. Legal Consultation: Consulting with an attorney who specializes in family law can provide invaluable guidance and ensure that legal documents are correctly drafted and enforceable.

It’s important to consult with a professional attorney to understand the full scope of these options and how they apply to individual circumstances. An attorney’s advice can provide guidance tailored to the specific needs and goals of the couple. 

Experienced Legal Counsel for Prenuptial and Cohabitation Agreements

For unmarried couples in California, understanding and navigating the legal landscape is essential for protecting their rights and interests. While they do not have the same automatic legal protections as married couples or domestic partners, with careful planning and the use of formal agreements, they can achieve a significant degree of security and peace of mind. It’s crucial for such couples to be proactive and well-informed about their options, ensuring that their relationships are fortified with the necessary legal safeguards. At Kaspar & Lugay, LLP, we are available to assist couples with navigating the complexities of drafting cohabitation agreements, prenuptial contracts, and other issues related to their rights as unmarried partners. Learn more about how we can assist you by scheduling your consultation with our Marin County family law firm today.