Tying the Financial Knot: Unmarried Couples Need a Plan Too

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Insights from research by Hugh Magill, Vice Chairman at Northern Trust.

Your relationship may not be traditional, and your estate plan does not need to be either.

Over the past few decades, the United States has seen a consistent decline in the number of couples opting to marry. However, this does not mean people are no longer in long-term relationships — many couples simply remain unmarried. “The marriage paradigm is changing. In previous generations, marriage was a cornerstone: Couples dated, got married, lived together, then had children. Today, couples may build a life together before they marry, making marriage a capstone experience,”1 says Hugh Magill, Northern Trust’s Chief Fiduciary Officer and Global Director of Trust Services.

The Marriage Paradigm is Changing

Chart:Recent Relationship Trend Chart:Recent Relationship Trend Chart:Recent Relationship Trend

While cohabitation is a growing trend, current property and tax laws do not afford the same financial protections to domestic partners as they do to married couples. This is a significant issue, given the growing number of couples and children it impacts.

The number of adults cohabitating increased 29% from 2007 to 20162

While nearly half of all cohabiting adults are under 35, the percentage of cohabiters aged 50 and over is increasing.

Many Cohabiters remain in long-term relationships3

6 steps toward an estate plan for unmarried couples:

High-net-worth couples may have a mutual understanding of how they would allocate their wealth if their partner should pass, but they may not have an impetus (such as a prenuptial agreement) to put an estate plan in writing. Without a legally binding agreement, a judge cannot enforce their wishes. To avoid this situation, consider taking the following steps to ensure your intentions are fulfilled.

  1. Consider consulting an attorney about a cohabitation agreement in lieu of a prenuptial agreement.
  2. Discuss two difficult subjects – disability and death – to understand each other's expectations about healthcare and wealth transfer.
  3. Work with a skilled estate planning attorney to develop an estate plan that is consistent with each partner’s objectives.
  4. Carefully consider the tax implications of asset transfers, both those occurring during life and at death, in light of the fact that tax deductions available to married couples are not applicable to unmarried couples.
  5. Title assets and modify beneficiary designations to follow the provisions of each estate plan.
  6. Execute durable powers of attorney for healthcare and property.

Traditional family structures in the U.S. are clearly evolving, but most estate plan laws have not yet caught up. To ensure each partner is protected, unmarried couples should seek the guidance of attorneys and other advisors to build a successful strategy.

"Life is unpredictable. One of the most important gifts that we can leave our family is a thoughtful and carefully designed estate plan."

Hugh Magill

Chief Fiduciary Officer and Global Director of Trust Services, Northern Trust

  1. Taylor, P. The Pew Research Center, The Next America, New York: Public Affairs, 2014.
  2. Parker, K., Wang, W. (2014, September 24). Record Share of American's Have Never Married. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/09/24/record-share-of-americans-have-never-married/
  3. Livingston, G (2018, April 27). About one-third of U.S. children are living with an unmarried parent. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/27/about-one-third-of-u-s-children-are-living-with-an-unmarried-parent/
  4. "Living Arrangements of Children Under 18 Years and Marital Status Of Parents, By Age, Sex, Race, And Hispanic Origin And Selected Characteristics Of The Child For All Children: 2016," United States Census Bureau, 2016