Q: My “significant other” and I plan to live together and share our money and our debts, but we are not planning to get married. Is there a way we can each protect ourselves and the property each of us will bring into the relationship?
A: The law does not provide the same protections to unmarried individuals that it provides for married individuals. However, you may choose to tenter into a relationship agreement that is essentially a partnership contract between two unmarried individuals associated together for any reason other than for a business purpose. A relationship agreement can, in turn, be a valid contract enforceable through the court system.
Q: What may we include in the agreement?
A: The agreement may be as simple or as detailed as the parties desire to make it. It may include personal matters, such as who is responsible for household responsibilities and how finances will be handled between you. It may also address what will happen if and when the relationship ends, including how personal and financial affairs will be managed. This agreement is a necessity in the event that the parties jointly purchase a piece of real estate but put the deed in only party's name.
Q: The parents of an unmarried friend of mine disregarded her wishes and prevented her partner from making health care and financial decisions for her when she was incapacitated. Can a relationship agreement protect my partner and me in such a situation?
A: Yes. Your relationship agreement may include ancilary documents such as wills, durable powers of attorney, healthcare powers of attorney, and living wills. All of these documents will enforce your wishes against the actions of an uncooperative third-party family member who may act contrary to your intentions.
For example, you can create a health care power of attorney covering medical treatment and authorize your partner to speak for you in the event that you are unable to do so for yourself. If you do this, a family member cannot override your partner’s authority to make such decisions for you. Similarly, through a financial power of attorney, you can authorize your partner to make financial decisions for you.
Another document, called a living will, directly conveys your wishes about certain kinds of health care treatment in special, life-threatening circumstances. A family member may not override the wishes you have stated in a valid living will.
To cover issues that may arise after you die (for example, who will inherit your property and money), you can spell out who should receive what by creating a will. Also, you can name your partner as executor of your estate (the person who will handle matters after your death according to your will). You also may wish to set up a trust to manage and protect your property while you are living or after your death.
Q: Can one attorney represent both of us?
A: No. An attorney is prohibited by ethical guidelines from representing both of you unless a full disclosure is made of a conflict of interest and both of your knowingly and willingly waive it in writing. It is most advisable for the attorney who writes the agreement to represent you, and the other party would engage another attorney.
Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. This article was prepared by attorney Keith Golden, managing partner in the Columbus firm, Golden & Meizlish Co., LPA.