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Things Every Couple Should Know

In my family law practice, one of the most common things I hear over and over from clients who have just had the law explained to them is, "I wish I had known that a long time ago!" Or, "If only I had known that before (whatever) happened."

People entering any form of long-term relationship, whether married, domestic partners, or just living together, are typically unaware that their relationship to each other--and to third parties, like creditors or government agencies--are defined and governed by rules of law, often in ways they did not expect or would not have agreed to had they known. They are not aware of what can happen when events force these rules into play.

Another surprise is that new laws can come along at any time and change your legal relationship in significant ways without you knowing or agreeing to it. And that's nothing compared to what can happen when you move to another state. Rights and duties that you might or might not have been aware of will suddenly become entirely different. Law books are filled with the cases of unhappy people who found out after the fact that things were not as they had thought or wished.

Here are two more things that couples should know. First, couples can make written agreements that change the rules of their relationship to suit their own needs and preferences. And, second, a relationship agreement can be a positive and constructive thing that reinforces your commitment to one another and creates a foundation for working out problems that might arise in the future, possibly saving your relationship.

It is much better if you do not wait in ignorance for some defining event to spring up and force the rules to your attention. I encourage every couple to know where they stand and learn how and to what extent they can tailor their legal relationship to more closely suit their personal wishes.

Above all, I recommend that every couple enter into a basic Couples Contract and give themselves the invaluable advantages that can be had just for spending a little effort to do it.

Your legal relationships have already been defined

If you are in a long-term relationship and do not have an enforceable written agreement, rules of law define and govern the following important features of your relationship:

  • How open and honest you must be with each other
  • Who owns income earned by either of you during the relationship
  • Who can manage the money and assets
  • Who owes debts incurred by either of you before or during the relationship
  • Who owns property acquired during the relationship
  • Who can be covered by health insurance
  • Who can authorize medical or mental health treatment
  • Who can visit in a hospital or jail
  • Who can order care and apply for benefits after disability
  • Who inherits if there is no will
  • Who is included in the retirement plan
  • Who sees to the partner's wishes after death

You have a choice: accept the rules imposed by the law, or tailor the terms of your relationship in a written agreement to better suit your needs and preferences. You can learn more at www.nolocouples.com.

Copyright 2005 Ed Sherman

Ed Sherman is a family law attorney, award-winning author, and founder of Nolo Press. He started the self-help law movement in 1971 when he published the first edition of How to Do Your Own Divorce, and founded the paralegal industry in 1973. In his latest book, featuring the Couples Contract, Ed applies what he has learned from years of experience to help couples protect and preserve their relationship. You can order his books from http://www.nolocouples.com or by calling (800) 464-5502.

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