For a variety of reasons, many people in romantic relationships do not get married. Instead, they may live together, purchase a home together, share their finances, and place debts or title to assets in their joint names. Many retired, divorced, or widowed individuals remain unmarried because they do not want to lose retirement or military benefits. Not only does marriage impact numerous rights and responsibilities, it creates various legal relationships, which most people don’t realize.

What About Property?

North Carolina does not provide for common law marriage, but will recognize one if it was valid in a state that does recognize common law marriage. If unmarried co-owners of a residence separate, the residence is not subject to equitable distribution, the process by which the court divides property between married people. Instead, there are different court alternatives that must be utilized if the parties are unable to agree on matters such as possession of the residence, who must pay the mortgage payments and what to do if only one party wants to sell the residence. Real property ownership is completely different for unmarried property owners, and deeds must be drafted accordingly to create the desired result.  Similarly, unmarried partners who place both partners’ names on other assets, such as vehicle titles and bank accounts, or on loans or credit card accounts, face a different procedure for resolving disputes.

Your Children

When parties have a child together, there are many rights and obligations both parents have to care for and support their child. There are different rights and obligations for parents when they are married. North Carolina law concerning a child’s paternity, birth certificate, adoption, and legitimation can be very complex and appear somewhat arbitrary when comparing the rights between married and unmarried parents. The rights of mothers and fathers also vary until certain legal events take place. Sometimes, failure to assert parental rights as an unmarried parent can lead to the loss of those rights, in the practical sense of the word, if not literally.

Your Legal Affairs and Estate Planning

Unmarried partners do not have the same inheritance rights as spouses, so estate planning is important, especially when parties live together but only one party owns the residence.  There are numerous other estate planning and end of life considerations that must be taken into account, such as deciding things such as who will make medical decisions or manage finances if one partner is no longer able to do so. Presently, only spouses may be covered on health insurance policies and/or receive social security benefits in the event of a death (or retirement in some circumstances).

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