An increasing number of Americans ages 50 and older are in cohabiting relationships, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of the Current Population Survey. In fact, cohabiters ages 50 and older represented about a quarter (23%) of all cohabiting adults in 2016. One reason could be the adult children’s rejection to their older parent’s marriage, especially if the relationship formed soon after the death of the other parent. Approximately 23% of cohabiters over age 65 are widowed.

However, as with many things in life, what seems simple — living together — is often quite complex. Unmarried couples, of all sexual orientations, can face a variety of problematic and emotionally difficult issues because estate planning laws are written to favor married couples.

Unmarried partners need to consider the following issues related to estate planning and living together:

  1. Medical incapacity: In the absence of a durable power of attorney for healthcare, non-married individuals may be treated as “legal strangers” and unable to make healthcare decisions on behalf of their partner.
  2. Living arrangements: If the wealthier partner dies or becomes incapacitated with no provision for the other partner to remain in the home (by a will or title) the other partner can be forced from the home by blood kin.
  3. Dying without a will: Intestacy laws (state laws that determine where a deceased’s property goes when there is no will) are not favorable to unmarried partners.
  4. Employer Retirement Plans: Plans like 401k’s, profit sharing, and pension plans, as well as group life insurance plans are governed by a federal law known as ERISA. This law requires that a spouse be the beneficiary of these plans in the event of the employee’s death unless waived by the spouse. No such protection is afforded unmarried partners unless the partner is listed on the Plan’s beneficiary form.

For more, see Brad Wiewel, The Legal Dangers of Living Together, Next Avenue, August 28, 2019.