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It’s a scenario that’s become increasingly common around the country: A man and woman who’ve been dating for awhile decide to move in together. They share a household, routinely celebrate holidays with one another’s family, and may have purchased a car or other property together.


In other words, their relationship has taken on all the attributes commonly associated with being a married couple. But in fact, the couple never applied for a marriage license and never took part in any sort of marriage ceremony.


In some states, if this living situation persists, the couple would eventually have a common law marriage – meaning the law would treat them just like any other married couple in the event one of them dies and it becomes necessary to settle the deceased partner’s estate.


Ohio, however, is not one of those states.



No More Common Law Marriages in Ohio


According to the National Association of State Legislatures (NASL), Ohio is one of five states that used to recognize common law marriages but no longer does.

Common law marriages were valid in Ohio up until October 10, 1991. Under the Ohio Revised Code, if a couple entered into such a relationship prior to that date, the state will still recognize their relationship as a common law marriage today. But couples who have entered into such relationships in the last 23 years won’t be able to claim that they’re legally married.


An exception does exist for couples who had already established a common law marriage in another state before moving to Ohio. In that case, Ohio will consider the couple to be legally married here. But according to NASL, there are just eight states where the law presently provides for the creation of a common law marriage: Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.



Spouses Have More Rights


All of this has implications for unmarried couples in Ohio when it comes to estate planning. Legal spouses have certain rights when their significant other dies that unmarried partners do not enjoy.


For example, when a person dies without a will – known in legal terminology as dying “intestate” – state law determines how the property that individual owned will be distributed. Ohio’s intestate succession laws dictate that the property will pass to the spouse. If there is no spouse, then other relatives will stand to inherit the property. The unmarried partner may be shut out of the process completely.


Even when an individual has written a will, state law acts to protect a surviving spouse through what is known as an elective share. An elective share is basically a forced inheritance that prevents someone from writing a will that would cut out his or her spouse altogether. The elective share guarantees a minimum portion of the estate will go to the surviving spouse even if the will says otherwise. But again, a couple must be legally married in order for the elective share provision to be invoked.


Other Options for Unmarried Couples


Unmarried couples can still provide for their partners by designating their significant other as the beneficiary on life insurance policies, titling property in both of their names, and establishing joint or pay-on-death bank accounts. All of these options can be part of a comprehensive estate plan drawn up in consultation with an experienced attorney.


John Grundy has been providing quality legal services in the area of estate planning to individuals in Warren, Aurora, Youngstown, Cortland, Akron and all of Northeast Ohio for nearly 30 years. If you have questions about how to best provide for your loved ones, contact our office today to discuss your legal and financial options.