If you like it, put a ring on it

You may have heard people throwing around the term Common Law Marriage, despite the fact that it doesn't exist in most states, including Illinois. Common law marriage is when the law considers a couple to be married, without an official marriage license or ceremony, if you live together like husband and wife for a certain amount of time. Different states have different requirements, but that's the general idea.

In Illinois, as I mentioned, it doesn't exist. Even if you have lived with your partner for 20 years, you do not have the same rights as a married couple. You also do not have the same obligations.

For example, if your partner is in the hospital, you may not be allowed to visit him or her, and you won't be permitted to sign forms or make medical decisions for them. If you are not married but you want these rights, you should each sign a power of attorney for healthcare.

If your partner dies without a will, you will not inherit anything from them. When someone dies without a will - called dying intestate - the law says that their property and assets are distributed according to a set formula (spouses and children, most commonly). If you want your partner to inherit as a spouse would, then you will need a properly executed will.

If you are not married, you will not be responsible for your partner's debts. Unless you co-sign on a loan or otherwise agree to pay if your partner doesn't pay, then those debts are not yours. In a conventional marriage in Illinois, spouses are both responsible for what are called family expenses. If you aren't married, there are no family expenses, or debts.

Despite the law, debt collectors may insist that you're responsible for your partner's debts. They may even threaten to come after you if you don't pay. This often happens with unpaid medical bills after someone's death. If you're unsure about whether you're responsible, check with an attorney, but most likely they're just using fear to try and make money.

But the biggest risk of not getting married comes to dividing up property if you break up.  Recently I was contacted by a woman who lived with her boyfriend for over 10 years.  The house they bought when they started dating was in his name only.  So even though she paid half the mortgage every month, she ended up with nothing to show for her investment.  Even though she stopped working for a while to watch his son, she got nothing for that too.  Her only rights were to go after some property they had purchased jointly like a dog and furniture.

So unless you can live with all of these risks, take it from that wise legal scholar Beyonce and get married.  That way when you break up you can have all of the pleasure of divorce.



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  • Great points (and great title...although I'll be humming that song all day now).

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