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Unmarried cohabitating couples face unique estate issues

Unmarried couples who live together in Michigan face a unique set of legal matters related to estate and probate planning. Couples who live together but aren't married may be doing so for a variety of reasons. Usually, these types of couples are younger and do not believe in the institution of marriage, or they are elderly and have a more platonic, financially-centered relationship.

Whatever the reason, unmarried couples are not afforded the same set of estate and probate planning securities as married couples. Although it is rarely cited or enforced, Michigan is one of just a few states where it is technically illegal to cohabitate as an unmarried couple. However, a bill issued in the 2016 legislative session, Senate Bill 896, reached the Senate floor with a recommendation to pass.

Here are a few things for non-married partners who live together to consider:

Write a cohabitation agreement

A cohabitation agreement can be thought of as similar to a prenuptial agreement that a soon-to-be-married couple would sign. Items to outline in this agreement can include who will pay for what bills, what happens to mutually acquired property if you split up and your estate plan if one of you were to become incapacitated.

Special consideration for wills and powers of attorney

You and your unmarried partner may still include each other in a will and power of attorney. Without a will, your next of kin would be left as the next legal beneficiaries of your property. Without a power of attorney, your partner may not be able to make decisions on your behalf. If you pass on property to your partner through a will, he or she will be required to pay taxes on a gift or an inheritance larger than $14,000 per year.

Benefits after death?

Unmarried partners are not entitled to each other's social security or survivor's benefits. However, a non-married partner may be able to collect 401(K) funds if he or she is designated as the beneficiary in a will. A non-married partner, generally, is not responsible for his or her deceased partner's debts as long as a joint responsibility of accounts or ownership of property cannot be established.

Speak to an attorney to clarify gray areas

Circumstances differ from family to family whether a couple is married or not. It is important to discuss your wishes with an estate and probate planning attorney before making decisions that could have an impact on you or your partner's long-term financial wellbeing.

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