Unmarried Partner Rights in California

What Rights Does an Unmarried Partner Have in California

Does California recognize common-law marriages? And what is an unmarried romantic partner entitled to receive after their partner’s death? It’s important for cohabiting partners to ask these questions in order to understand unmarried partner rights in California.

What is Common-Law Marriage?

A handful of states recognize “common law marriages”, where a couple who never wed may be considered to be legally married if they have been living together and presenting themselves publicly as a married couple for a specific period of time. Often the timeframe to establish a common law marriage is seven years.

Does California Recognize Common-Law Marriages?

California does not recognize common-law marriages. No matter how long California couples may have cohabitated, they are not entitled to the rights and privileges of a married couple. The one exception would be for a couple who established a common law marriage in another state first. If they then moved to California, the state would honor that common law marriage. 

Rights of Unmarried Partners After Death

If you’re an unmarried couple, you may wonder what you would be entitled to if your partner were to pass away. In California, an unmarried partner’s rights after death are about the same as the rights of a roommate. They would not be entitled to inherit any of their partner’s assets if the partner died, even if they lived together for many years and/or had children together.

If your unmarried partner dies intestate (meaning with no estate plan in place), then their assets would be distributed according to the laws of intestate succession. Their heirs at law – meaning relatives with a valid claim to an inheritance – would include their children, parents, siblings, and grandparents, in that order. As an unmarried partner, you would have no legal claim to any of their property. This is why it’s crucial for unmarried couples to create an estate plan.

Steps Unmarried Couples Need to Take

If you’re in an unmarried relationship and want to make provisions for your partner if you were to pass away, here are some options to ensure your wishes are carried out:

  1. Create an Estate Plan: The first and best option is to create an estate plan. This will allow you to include your partner in your asset distribution and if you wish, as an executor or successor trustee, agent for your Durable Power of Attorney, and agent for your Advance Health Care Directive.
  2. Check Title on Real Property: If you own real estate and have not created a trust, make sure you and your partner are both on the title. If the property is in your name alone and you die, then your partner could be evicted so the home can be sold and the proceeds distributed to your heirs. If you do create a trust, transfer any real property into your trust.
  3. Check Title on Bank Accounts: Make sure you and your partner are both on the title to any bank accounts if you wish for them to inherit those assets. If you create a trust, you should title bank accounts in your name as trustee of your trust. 
  4. Check Vehicle Titles: Arrange for your vehicle registration to transfer on death to your partner.
  5. Check Beneficiary Designations: List your partner as the beneficiary of any insurance policies, retirement accounts, or payable-on-death accounts
  6. Remove Your Ex: If you have a former spouse or partner, be sure to remove them from all previously held titles and create new estate planning documents. It’s not uncommon for us to see ex-spouses inherit assets because the decedent forgot to update a beneficiary designation!

For couples who choose not to marry, these are a few of the ways to ensure your companion will be taken care of after you’re gone. If you have any questions about this topic, seek the counsel of an experienced estate planning attorney. They can help you design a custom estate plan that will accomplish your goals.

Law Offices of Daniel A. Hunt

The Law Offices of Daniel A. Hunt is a California law firm specializing in Estate Planning; Trust Administration & Litigation; Probate; and Conservatorships. We've helped over 10,000 clients find peace of mind. We serve clients throughout the greater Sacramento region and the state of California.