Legal Issues for Unmarried Couples in Pennsylvania


If you happened to catch my radio show “Marshall Law” on WCCS recently, you may have heard me discussing legal issues facing unmarried couples. In modern society, many folks are in committed relationships, but choose not to enter into a legal marriage. Previously, some of these unmarried couples would have been recognized as “common law” marriages; however, the Pennsylvania legislature abolished common law marriage in 2005. This left many unmarried couples in legal limbo.

So, what are the most common issues facing unmarried couples? And what can be done about them?

  1. Lack of estate planning. Many unmarried couples intend to leave all or some of their property to their significant other upon their death. Unfortunately, without a properly drafted will or trust, their partner will not receive any inheritance. Unmarried couples should also consider whether it is appropriate to hold title to real estate or other assets jointly or separately. Unmarried couples, like most folks, should consult with an experienced Pennsylvania estate planning attorney.
  2. Beneficiary Designations. On a related note, unmarried couples who wish their partner to receive a death benefit from their life insurance, investments, or retirement accounts should ensure they update the beneficiary designations to reflect that fact.
  3. No power of attorney. If one partner becomes incapacitated, the other partner often cannot access their bank or investment accounts, online accounts, transfer motor vehicles, change insurance policies, etc. For this reason, it is critical that unmarried couples consider having power of attorney documents in place.
  4. Healthcare Decisions. If one partner is unable to make medical decisions on their own, medical professionals will usually only discuss matters with “next of kin.” Unless their is a valid healthcare power of attorney in place, your partner will generally not have any say in where you are treated, by which doctors, what procedures or prescriptions are dispensed, not to mention end-of-life decisions.
  5. Division of property at separation. When a married couple divorces, Pennsylvania law provides a framework for how marital property is to be divided. When an unmarried couple separates, chaos can often ensue with regard to the ownership of tangible personal property (stuff), non-tangible personal property (money), and real estate. Also, neither partner has a right to spousal support or alimony. These issues can be addressed in a written “cohabitation agreement” that spells out the relevant rights and responsibilities of the parties during the relationship and in the event of separation. If properly drafted, a cohabitation agreement is enforceable in court.

The above are just a few of the issues faced by unmarried couples in Pennsylvania. Without proper preparation, any one of these issues can lead to unintended consequences, or worse, prolonged and expensive litigation. For additional information, contact me for a consultation.

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