Legal Rights for Unmarried Couples in California

Flicker, Kerin, Kruger & Bissada LLP

California may be known for its progressive stance on many social issues, but its perspective on rights for unmarried couples is anything but unique. Married couples enjoy a plethora of legal rights and protections under the law. Although a small number of states recognize common law marriage – an informal marriage where couples do not have a marriage license, marriage ceremony, or marriage certificate but are considered legally married if they meet specific requirements – California only affords these rights to legally married couples. Given such, unmarried couples often find themselves in a more precarious legal position. Understanding these nuances is crucial, especially for partners who choose not to marry but require legal recognition and protection for their relationship.

The Legal Landscape for Unmarried Couples

In California, unmarried couples do not automatically receive the many legal benefits accorded to their married counterparts. The benefits for married couples include, but are not limited to, property rights, inheritance, tax benefits, and spousal support. The absence of a legal framework for unmarried couples means that, upon separation or the death of a partner, individuals may find themselves without any legal claim to property or support that they might have expected.

One of the primary areas of concern for unmarried partners is property rights. Although there are exceptions, in a marriage, property acquired during the marriage is generally considered community property and is divided equally upon divorce. However, for unmarried couples, property, whenever acquired, is the separate/sole property of the person whose funds were used to purchase the asset, or whose name is on the title or deed unless there is clear evidence that it was intended to be shared.

Without a marriage, a person does not automatically inherit anything from their deceased partner outside of a will or estate plan. Additionally, they do not have the automatic right to make medical or financial decisions for each other in times of crisis, unlike married partners.

Strengthening Legal Rights: Contracts and Agreements

Given the legal uncertainties for unmarried parties in California, couples can take proactive steps to secure their rights through a contract or legal agreement.

Cohabitation Agreements

A cohabitation agreement is a legally binding contract between two people who live together and are in a romantic relationship but are not legally married. These contracts are similar to prenuptial agreements but are handled through the civil court system instead of through the family court and don’t require the parties to legally marry. 

The primary purpose is to clearly outline the rights and responsibilities of each partner, particularly in relation to finances, property, and other assets. A cohabitation agreement is a way for partners to define their own rules and protections, which can be especially important in the event of a breakup or one partner’s death.

It is important to note that courts in California will scrutinize cohabitation agreements, especially in areas concerning financial support and property rights. The agreement must be fair and reasonable at the time of its execution and enforcement. An agreement that is heavily one-sided may not be enforced.

Marvin Actions

Marvin Actions in California refer to a type of legal claim that can be brought by unmarried partners after their relationship ends. These actions are named after the landmark case Marvin v. Marvin (1976), where the California Supreme Court recognized that unmarried partners have the right to enforce verbal or written agreements related to the distribution of property and financial support, similar to those rights held by married couples. 

Marvin Actions are based on the premise that the couple had an agreement (explicit or implied) to provide financial support or share property. Unlike married couples, there is no presumption of community property for unmarried couples, so these agreements are crucial.

Courts will examine whether the agreement was entered into freely and with informed consent and whether it is fair and reasonable. If a court finds that an agreement existed, it will enforce it as it would any other contract, subject to usual contract defenses.

Estate Planning

Estate planning is a crucial tool for protecting the interests and rights of unmarried couples. Unmarried partners do not automatically receive the same legal protections as spouses, especially in the areas of property rights, inheritance, and decision-making in case of incapacity, but estate planning can establish and safeguard these rights. 

Experienced Legal Counsel for Unmarried Couples

While the rights of unmarried partners in California are not as robust as those of married couples, there are mechanisms to strengthen and secure these rights. Cohabitation agreements, Marvin Actions, and careful estate planning are essential tools for unmarried partners wishing to protect their interests. Consulting with a knowledgeable family law attorney can provide invaluable guidance in navigating these complex legal waters. We encourage you to reach out to the skilled team at Flicker, Kerin, Kruger & Bissada LLP to discuss your needs and move forward with protecting your interests in your relationship.

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