It’s Your Money Column – Financial Contracts for Couples

Question: My partner and I have made a life-long commitment. Do we need legal agreements, too?

Answer: A wise consultant once counseled me that one of the most important steps to take when two or more people make decisions is to establish a set of guidelines for how to decide when there is disagreement. For married couples, these guidelines are often determined by laws. For unmarried couples, the decision-making process is much less defined, making it even more important to establish your rules by drafting written, legally binding agreements.

Just as married couples, the issues that are the most complicated concern property, inheritance, income and debts. An attorney can draw up a living-together agreement based on the values and wishes of both people in a relationship.

A living-together agreement would include directives concerning property rights, inheritance rights and support. The couple can agree to hold property acquired during the relationship as jointly owned or in equal or proportionate shares. They may keep property separate and agree to compensate one person for services that benefits the other person.

If couples think ahead to the possibility of death or dissolution of a relationship, they can think clearly about what they want to have happen before an event triggers these decisions. A living-together agreement can protect both partners.

Decisions need to be made if one person can no longer work. What is each partner willing to do to support the other one?

It is critical for you and your partner to have legal documents if you want your partner to make medical decisions if you are unable to do so. When outside family members are not supportive of a living-together relationship, a partner without a legal document has no authority to make decisions for their partner. An attorney can draw up a durable power of attorney and a medical power of attorney for you and your partner that will allow you to make medical and financial decisions for each other.

Of course, wills are essential to specify who will inherit what. It is suggested that cohabiting couples avoid probate as much as possible if there is any possibility that family members might challenge a will. This means having real estate, stocks and bonds, savings accounts and insurance policies in joint names so the property passes directly to the surviving partner.

Visit an attorney right away so you can feel confident that you are taking care of each other.