Millions of couples in the United States, including Missouri, choose to cohabitate either before or instead of getting married. Although these couples often face many of the same challenges that married couples face, Missouri law governing the termination of their relationship, or the incapacity or death of one partner, is not specifically designed to handle the problems presented. Therefore, careful planning is critical to avoid some of the pitfalls which can otherwise occur.
Separation. When an unmarried couple with property separate, the parties are free to go their separate way, but there are complicated legal issues regarding their jointly owned property and joint debts. Although separate property that may be easily divided, jointly titled assets are often left in a difficult situation. While a divorce court has authority to divide the assets and liabilities, cohabitating couples do not have an equivalent legal method to resolve these matters. Dividing assets and liabilities can be extremely difficult after a breakup. Therefore, planning in advance can help avoid some of these problems.
Incapacity. Another major issue arises when one of the individuals becomes incapacitated. Section 475.050 (RSMo.) provides who can be appointed as a guardian or conservator of a disabled or incapacitated individual. It also provides a preference for a spouse or close family member to be appointed guardian or conservator. Therefore, without careful planning, while the non-incapacitated individual may be eligible to serve, they may be considered only if other family members decline. Conflicts often arise between a close family member, such as a parent or child of the disabled or incapacitated individual, and the partner regarding who shall serve as the guardian or conservator. The fight over who should be taking care of the disabled or incapacitated person can be eliminated by careful planning, including a trust, durable power of attorney and healthcare declaration.
Death. Another issue is what happens upon the death of one of the individuals. Although the problems which can arise and the various solutions which may exist are far too numerous to mention in this article, it is important to develop an estate plan to ensure that the desires of the decedent are met. Missouri’s intestate succession laws provide for distribution of assets of the decedent to his or her family by marriage and blood and do not provide for a partner. Failing to perform proper estate planning often results in unforeseen or unintended consequences.
Therefore, cohabitating couples should take extra precautions to avoid the numerous problems that can result if no affirmative action is taken. Please feel free to call and speak with one of the experienced attorneys at the Thurman Law Firm to discuss your legal rights.