What Does It Mean to Be Married Under the Law?

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Most people think of marriage as about love and romance and sharing the rest of your life with another person. It is all of those things but it also has another side. Under the law, a marriage is a legal and economic partnership that confers certain rights and obligations on both parties. It’s this partnership aspect that can make divorce so complicated and time-consuming. 

You and your fiancé start as two separate legal entities and become one entity upon marriage. While you are one entity, certain rights and obligations arise between you particularly when a child is born to the marriage. It is the determination of these rights and obligations that can make divorce challenging. To be clear, you may fall out of love but you can’t just walk away if you’re married because your relationship has to be disentangled legally and financially.

What Rights and Obligations Do Married Couples Have to Each Other?

When you get married, you agree to take legal and financial responsibility for each other. That means you can do things like:

  • choose to file joint tax returns and be jointly responsible for taxes 
  • make health care decisions for your spouse if he or she is not capable of making them
  • pay each other’s bills
  • inherit at least one-third of your spouse’s assets if he or she dies without a will
  • sue for wrongful death of your spouse
  • receive government benefits for your spouse, such as social security, disability, etc.
  • obtain equitable distribution of marital property in divorce
  • receive financial support and health insurance benefits from your spouse.

While you can enter into a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement to alter these rights and obligations, the law imposes certain legal requirements for those couples who go down this path to help ensure that neither spouse is coerced into signing away rights without understanding the implications thereto.

Why Is Divorce Complicated?

When couples divorce, they have to separate their finances. Marital assets must be divided in a process known as equitable distribution. Whether spousal support is warranted in a given situation is also determined. When a marriage is relatively short – under seven years – the division isn’t that difficult. Financial institutions typically have financial records for at least seven years so each side’s individual finances and contributions to the marriage can be reconstructed. 

However, for longer marriages, records may not be available or require significant effort to gather. The longer the marriage, the stronger the presumption that all assets owned by either party are marital property that should be split equitably between the parties in divorce. 

How Can You Protect Yourself When Getting Married?

Marriage is an important decision that has legal and financial implications. As a result, you shouldn’t impulsively get married. You want to be with someone you can trust and envision in your life through the good and bad times. 

Importantly, you should have discussions about what your future life will look like, including your finances. Talk about financial issues before you get married. Both of you should fully disclose your current finances as well as share your financial expectations for the marriage. Does one of you expect to stay home to raise children? Are you considering going back to school for an advanced degree? Do you want to quit your job and start a business? Arguments about money are a significant contributor to divorce. Thus, being proactive in having these conversations before you wed can help reduce the chance of future conflicts. These discussions can also be memorialized in a prenuptial agreement to further protect both of you in the event of divorce. 

If you are considering a prenuptial agreement or having marital problems, please contact us to find out how we can help.

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