Unmarried couples are a growing part of our population, and with them the growing controversy over their legal rights as couples. If the government doesn't recognize a relationship, taxes, estate planning, buying property, and dividing assets after a breakup all get messier—and pricier. And, as Bloomberg Businessweek recently pointed out, the number of unmarried cohabiting couples has surged, meaning millions more Americans, gay and straight, are facing these issues. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 7.5 million heterosexual couples and 620,000 same-sex couples lived together in 2010, compared with 6.7 million heterosexual couples and 476,000 same-sex couples in 2009.
The lack of a legally recognized union or marriage has always been a problem in the event of dispute or estate transfer. But with new laws and court rulings increasingly recognizing the rights of live-in couples, rapid change is also making the legal and financial status of couples more confusing.
"It's a changing area of the law,” according to Linda Lea Viken, attorney and president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “ Some places are becoming more hostile to same-sex relationships. Others are becoming more liberal."
This is especially important for same-sex couples, and estate planning is one of the thorniest issues. There are many tax advantages enjoyed by married couples, which simply are not available to those whose unions are not legally recognized. And, even if you are “legally married” in one state, don’t think your problems are solved. You can still face difficulties, especially if you move to a state that does not recognize your marriage.
Whether gay or straight, non-traditional couples need to take a serious look at the legal and economic realities they face. “It's dangerous to leave matters like custody of your children or holding on to your home to non-specialists, says Howard Forman, an attorney at Turkel, Forman & de la Vega in New York. “It's heart-wrenching when you see people who think they are protected and they're not.”