If you have ever watched Judge Judy on TV, you may have heard the iconic judge tell couples who have been living together “without the benefit of marriage” that courts are not designed to handle the legal ramifications of “setting up shop” together. Yet it is happening more and more. For many reasons, older couples especially are choosing to skip the ceremony and live as an unmarried couple.
From 2007 to 2016, the number of unmarried couples (of all orientations) age 50 or older rose 75% according to the US Census Bureau. Often they make the choice because it seems to be “easier,” but in actuality the law will make it quite difficult especially when it comes to medical and financial emergencies. Regardless of the reason, there are some very real scenarios that couples must consider and plan for if they decide to remain unmarried.
As we age we have more medical issues that might arise. If either partner is taken to a hospital without clear healthcare powers of attorney and/or a living will, for example, for legal reasons, the hospital may have to ignore a beloved partner’s wishes and default to a blood relative because otherwise they can sued if the family disagrees with the partner’s choices. Therefore a Living Will would be of benefit to spell out healthcare wishes in a way that is recognized by law.
A HIPPA release is also important because that gives a partner in a unmarried couple the ability to access medical records and arrange for burial or cremation, etc. without this access.
Similar issues can happen when it comes to financial matters. If one partner is supporting another financially without benefit of estate planning and something happens, the remaining partner will be shut off from accessing accounts and/or funding. Therefore, again a document such as a Financial Power of Attorney becomes very important.
Beneficiary designations for 401K and other retirement accounts override a will or trust, so in many cases because workplaces offer updates to this regularly, many unmarried partners will find that they are entitled to these accounts despite a will or lack of a will or trust.
The bottom line is that if couples who are older do decide to skip formal marriage vows, they should make other parts of their relationship recognized in the eyes of the law to prevent heartbreak down the road.