Skip to Content

What are your rights if you are not married?

When two people decide to spend their lives together without getting married, they are giving up certain legal protections and benefits that come with marriage. An unmarried couple doesn’t have the same legal rights when it comes to property, finances, estate planning, healthcare decisions, and more. However, there are steps an unmarried couple can take to secure some protections.

Property and Finances

Joint Property Ownership

One of the biggest issues for unmarried couples is how to own property together. When a married couple buys a home, it is automatically considered “marital property” owned equally by both spouses. But unmarried couples don’t have the same automatic legal protections.

If you purchase property with an unmarried partner, you need to specify how you’ll share ownership. The options include:

– Joint tenancy – Each partner has an equal ownership interest. If one partner dies, the other automatically inherits their share.

– Tenancy in common – Each partner has a specified ownership percentage that can be willed to someone else after death.

– Tenancy by the entirety – Joint ownership reserved only for married couples.

To protect each other, unmarried couples should have a legal agreement spelling out joint property ownership details.

Shared Bank Accounts

Married couples often have joint bank accounts. But it’s not as simple for unmarried couples. You’ll want to make sure you each have access to funds in case your partner dies or becomes incapacitated.

Some options to protect shared funds include:

– Joint accounts with right of survivorship – If one partner dies, the other inherits the account.

– Payable on death accounts – The surviving partner is the beneficiary and inherits the account.

– Designate your partner as power of attorney – They can access the account if you’re incapacitated.

As with property, legal agreements can help spell out how bank accounts are shared.

Shared Debt Obligations

If unmarried couples get a mortgage, car loan, or credit card together, it impacts both people’s finances. You need to decide who is responsible for making payments and what happens if you split up.

For protection, you may want to:

– Make payments from a joint account you both contribute to

– Have a cohabitation agreement outlining debt obligations

– Only take out joint debt you’re both prepared to pay

– Avoid allowing your partner to open accounts in your name

Joint debt takes trust and communication. Make sure you’re both clear on expectations.

Estate Planning

When you get married, your spouse automatically inherits your assets when you die. But unmarried couples don’t have the same estate planning protections. Without proper documents, your partner has no legal right to your property when you pass away.


A will allows you to leave your assets to anyone you choose – including an unmarried partner. You can leave your entire estate or specify certain property. However, wills can be disputed by family members.

Transfer on death deed

This deed allows you to name your unmarried partner directly on your property’s title. It transfers to them automatically upon your death without going through probate.

Payable on death accounts

These bank accounts pass directly to your partner when you die without the delays of probate.

Joint accounts

As noted in the finances section, joint bank and investment accounts with right of survivorship pass directly to the surviving partner.

Life insurance policies

You can name your unmarried partner as the beneficiary on your life insurance policy. The proceeds go directly to them tax-free.

With good estate planning, you can ensure your assets pass to an unmarried partner. But it takes more documents than for married couples.

Healthcare Decisions

If you become seriously ill or incapacitated, your spouse can make medical decisions based on your wishes. But unmarried partners don’t have the same rights. To allow your partner to act on your behalf, you need these documents:

Durable power of attorney for healthcare – Names your partner as your healthcare agent if you can’t make decisions yourself.

Living will – Outlines your end-of-life medical wishes if you’re terminally ill or permanently unconscious.

HIPAA authorization – Allows doctors to release your medical information to your partner.

Hospital visitation authorization – Grants your unmarried partner visitation rights in medical facilities that may otherwise restrict visits to “family only.”

Granting your partner healthcare power of attorney takes legal planning. But it helps ensure your wishes are followed.

Tax Implications

The tax returns of married couples are impacted by their marital status. But taxes for unmarried couples are handled individually based on their own incomes and deductions.

Key tax differences include:

Tax rates

Married couples can choose whether to file jointly or separately. Joint returns often result in lower tax rates. Unmarried couples don’t have this option.

Homeownership tax benefits

If unmarried couples buy a home, they don’t qualify for the $500,000 capital gains tax exemption for married joint filers when the home is sold.

Inherited assets

When a spouse dies, the surviving spouse can inherit all assets tax-free. This unlimited marital deduction does not apply to unmarried couples.

Gift tax rules

Spouses can give each other unlimited tax-free gifts. But different gift tax rules apply to unmarried couples.

IRA contributions

If one spouse lacks income, the working spouse can fund IRAs for both. This isn’t allowed for unmarried couples.

While fewer joint tax benefits exist, unmarried couples may pay less tax if they have more balanced incomes.

Insurance Benefits

Many employer and government insurance benefits are available to spouses that unmarried couples are excluded from.

Health insurance

Getting health coverage through your unmarried partner’s job is rare. You typically don’t qualify as a dependent.

COBRA continuation

If an employee’s spouse loses health coverage due to job loss, they can keep COBRA benefits for 18 months. Unmarried partners don’t get this option.

Life insurance

Spouses often receive life insurance and death benefits from a partner’s employer. Unmarried couples don’t have this automatic coverage.

Disability insurance

Some disability policies allow spouses to receive payments if their partner becomes disabled and can’t work. Unmarried couples lack equal access.

Social Security

A spouse can receive Social Security benefits based on their partner’s earnings record. Unmarried couples don’t get spousal Social Security benefits.

For insurance protections, unmarried couples must get individual coverage rather than relying on partner benefits.

Legal Protections

Marriage provides legal protections that unmarried couples lack – especially if they split up. Issues can include:

Property division – Married couples divide martial property upon divorce. Unmarried couples have no guaranteed rights to an equitable split.

Alimony – In a divorce, one spouse may get alimony to maintain their lifestyle. But unmarried couples have no right to spousal support.

Child custody – If unmarried parents separate, custody battles can ensue. A married spouse is assumed to be the parent.

Immigration – Spouses of citizens can apply for legal residency. Unmarried partners usually don’t qualify for these immigration benefits.

Crime victim rights – Spouses have the right to be present at trials or make victim impact statements. Unmarried partners may be excluded.

Wrongful death claims – Spouses can sue and recover damages if a partner is killed. Unmarried couples often cannot make wrongful death claims in court.

To secure legal protections, unmarried couples should have a cohabitation or partnership agreement outlining mutual obligations if the relationship ends. They also need vigilant record-keeping to document the relationship should disputes arise.

Parenting Rights

When an unmarried couple has or adopts a child, only the biological parent has legal rights and responsibilities by default. The other partner has no standing as a stepparent.

To protect parenting rights, unmarried couples should consider:

Second parent adoption – Allows the non-biological parent to become a legal parent.

Parenting agreement – Spells out custody, visitation, and child support obligations.

Guardianship document – Names the non-legal parent as a guardian in case something happens to the biological parent.

School forms – Designating your partner as an emergency contact and authorized to pick up your child from school if needed.

Medical consent forms – Giving your partner the ability to authorize medical treatment for your child if you’re unavailable.

Wills – Naming your partner as the caretaker for your child in case of your death.

Without proper legal planning, the non-biological parent in an unmarried couple has virtually no rights concerning a shared child. Take steps to protect your parental rights and responsibilities.

Hospital Visitation

When you’re married, your spouse can visit you in the hospital even if “family only” restrictions are in place. But unmarried partners could be barred from visiting you during an illness.

To allow hospital visitation rights for your partner, take these steps:

– Carry paperwork designating your partner as your medical power of attorney.

– Have your partner wear a medical alert bracelet identifying their status.

– Add your partner’s name to paperwork when checking in to give consent.

– Ask the hospital for a visitation exception for your unmarried partner and get written acknowledgement.

– Keep copies of your living will, medical consent forms, and affidavit of partnership status to show if access is questioned.

– Talk to your doctor and file paperwork identifying your partner as being allowed to know your medical details.

Hospitals don’t automatically have to allow unmarried partners to visit. So it requires proactive legal planning to protect visitation rights if you become ill.

End of Life Decisions

If you are married and become terminally ill or permanently unconscious, your spouse can make end of life decisions based on your wishes. They have authority over:

– Removing or continuing life support
– Deciding about do-not-resuscitate orders and living wills
– Authorizing organ donation after your death
– Making funeral arrangements and handling your remains as desired

But unmarried partners have no legal standing to make these choices or override family objections. To allow your partner end of life decision authority, you need:

– Advance healthcare directive naming them as your proxy
– Living will outlining your care preferences
– Legal will designating them to handle your funeral and remains

Granting your unmarried partner end of life power avoids disputes with estranged relatives. It provides peace of mind that your wishes will be honored.

Domestic Violence Protections

When domestic violence occurs, married victims have options like getting a restraining order or filing charges for spousal abuse. But some states don’t have equal protections covering unmarried couples.

If you experience domestic violence in an unmarried relationship, your options may depend on state laws. But you should still be able to:

– File for a restraining or protective order listing your partner as the offender
– Press charges for assault, battery, or other applicable offenses
– Contact law enforcement to have your abuser removed from your shared home
– Reach out to domestic violence hotlines and support groups
– Speak to a lawyer about your rights as an unmarried victim

All states prohibit domestic violence. But some states still treat spousal abuse differently. Know your options to get protection, even if you’re not legally married.


Choosing to live together without marriage means giving up certain legal protections, benefits, and privileges. But unmarried couples can take steps to secure rights concerning healthcare, finances, estate planning, parenting, and more.

Understand the challenges presented when couples don’t marry. Discuss how to protect each other. Get legal guidance to establish unmarried partner rights and responsibilities. With the right knowledge and planning, you can build a life together and protect your relationship despite remaining unwed.