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How can I protect my partner if we’re unmarried?

by Legacy Plan
September 9, 2023

For many people, estate planning conjures images of happy traditionally married couples leaving the assets of their estate to their grateful loved ones. However, estate planning is not just for the married. It's also especially critical for unmarried couples, yet there are several misconceptions surrounding the fundamental rights that unmarried partners possess.

One misconception is that estate planning is only needed for married couples, but the reality is that unmarried partners face unique challenges when it comes to asset protection, inheritance rights and decision-making authority for each other.

Whether you are an unmarried couple in a domestic partnership or a married couple of many decades, estate planning is crucial to ensure the well-being of both partners during their lifetimes and after their deaths. Fortunately, unmarried couples have several estate planning options available to them to protect their assets and ensure their wishes are carried out before and after they pass away.

By utilizing power of attorney documents, creating a will and establishing a trust, unmarried partners can have peace of mind knowing that they have taken necessary steps to help secure their financial and personal affairs. Consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney is highly recommended to tailor these options to the unique needs and circumstances of each couple.

Does my life partner inherit my property?

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One of the most common misconceptions among unmarried couples is the assumption that the duration of a relationship confers the same legal rights as marriage. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say, "We've been together for years, so we're protected like a married couple." Or, this: "If I die, everything will naturally go to my partner." That’s just not the case in most jurisdictions. Without a legally recognized union or estate planning documents in place, your partner could have no legal standing when it comes to inheritance or managing your estate after you pass away.

The belief that your assets will automatically pass to your partner upon your death is another major misunderstanding. Inheritance rights can be a complex issue for unmarried couples, who don’t enjoy the same legal protections as married couples. An unmarried person’s assets could be distributed according to state intestacy laws when there is no valid will in place. Intestacy laws prioritize blood relatives, and without estate planning documents, unmarried partners may find themselves entirely excluded from inheriting assets from their partner.

Instead, when someone passes away without a legally recognized spouse or children, their assets could end up going to distant relatives or even the state itself if no heirs can be found. For unmarried couples who have built a life together and accumulated joint property or financial investments, estate planning becomes even more critical. Without legal documents in place, surviving domestic partners may face significant hurdles and potential disputes with their loved one’s family members regarding inheritance rights and asset distribution.

In a will, individuals can designate specific items or sums of money to go directly to their partner, bypassing any legal formalities or potential challenges from other family members.

Do I need a will if I’m unmarried?

A will serves as a legally binding document that outlines how an individual's assets should be distributed upon their death, regardless of their marital status. Because unmarried individuals face unique challenges when it comes to protecting their assets and ensuring their wishes are carried out after death, a last will and testament can play an important role.

For unmarried partners who want certain possessions or financial resources to go directly to their significant other instead of defaulting to family members or next-of-kin according to state intestacy laws, having a valid will becomes imperative. Within a will, unmarried partners can name guardians for any dependent children they have together and outline specific instructions regarding their care.

Without a will, the laws of intestacy would govern the distribution of assets, potentially leaving loved ones vulnerable or excluding them entirely. One primary reason why an unmarried person needs a will is to exercise control over the distribution of their assets and avoid the state’s default distributions.

A will can help provide clarity and prevent unnecessary conflicts by clearly stating the intentions of the deceased partner. In addition to asset distribution, having a will allows unmarried individuals to appoint executors, also known as personal representatives, who are responsible for carrying out their final wishes outlined in the document.

Executors hold significant responsibility in managing various legal matters after one's passing, including paying debts and taxes owed by the estate and distributing assets as specified in the will. Selecting trusted individuals as executors ensures that one's estate is properly handled according to their intentions while minimizing potential conflicts among family members or other interested parties.

Can my partner make decisions for me if I can’t?

Many believe that if one partner becomes incapacitated, the other can naturally step in to make critical medical or financial decisions. Again, unmarried couples do not automatically have the same legal rights and protections as married couples. Without powers of attorney or similar legal documentation, hospitals and financial institutions are often obligated to consult next-of-kin – which usually means biological family members, not an unmarried partner.

A power of attorney grants legal authority to an individual, known as the agent or attorney in fact, to make decisions on behalf of another person in case they become incapacitated or unable to make decisions themselves. For unmarried couples lacking the automatic legal rights granted to married couples, a durable power of attorney can be particularly valuable to ensure that both partners have the authority to make important decisions on behalf of each other.

One key aspect where powers of attorney are crucial involves health care decisions. Without a power of attorney for health care, an unmarried partner may not have the legal right to make medical choices on behalf of their incapacitated partner. An advance directive that outlines preferred end-of-life treatment often is included as part of a health care power of attorney.

This can create significant challenges and delays in receiving appropriate medical care when time is of the essence. By designating each other as health care agents through a power of attorney document, unmarried couples can ensure that they receive prompt access to medical information and decision-making authority. Without legal authorization, an unmarried partner might have no say in medical treatments or end-of-life decisions for their incapacitated partner.

Powers of attorney also provide protection in managing financial affairs. Unmarried couples may jointly own assets such as property or bank accounts but lack automatic inheritance rights or decision-making power over these shared assets if one partner becomes incapacitated. With a financial power of attorney for finances in place, one partner can legally act on behalf of the other regarding financial matters. This includes paying bills, managing investments, accessing bank accounts and making property-related decisions.

Without powers of attorney, unmarried couples risk facing unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles, delays and potential disputes during critical moments. By designating each other as agents in their respective powers of attorney documents, unmarried partners can ensure that important decisions regarding finances, health care and other matters are made by someone they trust.

Can unmarried couples use a trust for estate planning?

Living trust and estate planning document on desk with a pen and gavel

Unmarried couples can indeed use a revocable living trust as part of their estate planning strategy. A trust is a legal entity that holds and manages assets for the benefit of beneficiaries. It allows individuals to transfer assets into the trust while still having control over them during their lifetime. For unmarried couples, using a trust can serve several purposes in the realm of estate planning.

First, a trust avoids probate, which is the court-supervised process of distributing assets after someone passes away. Since unmarried couples may not have inheritance rights that are automatically recognized by the law, having a trust in place can ensure that their assets are distributed according to their wishes without going through probate court.

This can also help maintain privacy as probate proceedings are public records. Secondly, using a trust allows unmarried couples to designate beneficiaries and determine how their assets should be distributed upon their death.

This flexibility is especially important for those who want to leave specific items or amounts to each other or other loved ones who may not be recognized as immediate family under inheritance laws. Trusts provide an added layer of protection for the surviving partner.

By naming each other as trustees or successor trustees, unmarried couples can ensure that they retain control over assets funded into the trust and financial decisions in case of incapacity or disability.

Trusts offer many advantages for unmarried couples when it comes to estate planning. They provide means to avoid lengthy and potentially contentious probate proceedings while allowing individuals to maintain control over their assets during their lifetime.

Do unmarried couples have custody rights for unadopted children?

When it comes to custody rights for unadopted children, unmarried couples face additional complexities compared to married couples. Without a legal recognition of their relationship, unmarried couples have no established legal rights regarding the partner’s children. However, it is important to note that custody laws vary by jurisdiction, and the specific circumstances of each case can greatly influence the outcome.

In some cases, when a child is born to an unmarried couple, the mother automatically retains sole legal and physical custody unless otherwise determined through a court order.

This means that without taking proactive steps to establish paternity or secure legal rights for both partners, the non-biological or non-adoptive parent may have limited or no rights regarding custody and visitation. To protect their interests and ensure their involvement in the child's life, unmarried couples should consider establishing legal parentage through processes such as voluntary acknowledgment of paternity or second-parent adoption where available.

In situations where both partners have established themselves as actively involved parents, courts generally aim to make decisions based on the best interests of the child. Factors such as stability of home environment, existing bond between parent and child and willingness to cooperate with the other parent are taken into account.

However, without a formal recognition of their relationship through marriage or adoption, unmarried couples may face more scrutiny during custody disputes compared to legally recognized spouses or domestic partners. Therefore, it becomes imperative for unmarried couples with children to consult with an attorney who can help them navigate these challenges and effectively advocate for their parental rights.

While estate planning tools such as wills and trusts primarily focus on distributing assets after death, they can also play a role in securing guardianship provisions for unadopted children within unmarried relationships. Including provisions within a will that specifically designate who should assume guardianship of minor children can provide clarity and peace of mind for all parties involved.

Additionally, establishing a trust can help ensure financial resources are available to support the child's upbringing and education. By proactively addressing custody matters within their estate plan, unmarried couples can further safeguard their children's well-being in the event of unforeseen circumstances.


Estate planning is crucial for unmarried couples to ensure their assets are protected and their wishes are carried out in the event of incapacity or death. Although unmarried couples do not have the same automatic inheritance rights as married couples, there are legal mechanisms available to help them secure their financial future.

Creating a will is essential for unmarried individuals as it allows them to designate beneficiaries and specify how their assets should be distributed. Moreover, establishing a trust can provide additional protection and flexibility in estate planning for unmarried couples.

A trust allows assets to be managed and distributed according to specific instructions, ensuring that both partners' interests are safeguarded. It can also help avoid probate and maintain privacy.

Additionally, powers of attorney play a vital role in estate planning for unmarried couples. By appointing each other as durable power of attorney, they can grant authority to make financial or health care decisions on behalf of one another if one partner becomes incapacitated.

This ensures that important decisions are made by someone trusted by the individual. While estate planning for unmarried couples may present some unique challenges compared to married counterparts, there are various legal tools available to provide security and peace of mind.

By creating wills, trusts and powers of attorney tailored specifically to their needs, unmarried individuals can protect their assets and ensure that their wishes are respected during incapacity or after death. Taking proactive steps toward estate planning allows couples to navigate potential obstacles with confidence while providing reassurance that their loved ones will be taken care of in the future.

How do I create an estate plan?

There are numerous options and scenarios to consider when developing an estate plan that protects your legacy and achieves your objectives, and important decisions should be made with the advice of qualified lawyers and financial experts. Membership with Legacy Assurance Plan provides members with valuable resources and guidance to develop comprehensive estate plans that take life's contingencies into consideration and leave a positive impact for generations to come. Legacy Assurance Plan members also receive peace of mind that a team of trusted, experienced professionals will assist them in developing legal, financial and tax strategies that will meet their needs today and for years to come through periodic reviews.

This article is published by Legacy Assurance Plan and is intended for general informational purposes only. Some information may not apply to your situation. It does not, nor is it intended, to constitute legal advice. You should consult with an attorney regarding any specific questions about probate, living probate or other estate planning matters. Legacy Assurance Plan is an estate planning services company and is not a lawyer or law firm and is not engaged in the practice of law. For more information about this and other estate planning matters visit our website at

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