I know a couple in their early 90’s. For over 30 years, they have identified themselves to friends, family, and the community as “Mr. & Mrs.*”
Mr. & Mrs. recently asked me to help them with the sale of their home. When I looked at their current Deed, there were two names listed, but they did not share a last name. Of course, I inquired as to whether Mrs. had changed her name at some point, including after the house was purchased. Mrs. told me that she had never changed her name legally after they were married.
After some additional inquiry, Mr. & Mrs. stated to me that they are common law spouses. They told me that they were wed in a ceremony performed by a friend, who was not an actual, registered officiant, and never obtained a marriage license. I found myself in the unfortunate position of needing to explain to them that while they are a loving, committed couple, Mr. & Mrs. are not actually married within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Mr. & Mrs. do not have any of the legal protections offered by the Commonwealth for married couples. Sadly, they both appeared surprised by and unprepared to handle the reality of their prior decisions.
This situation is not all that uncommon, especially among individuals who want to preserve existing entitlements or pension benefits; however, there is a way to protect yourself without getting married: Massachusetts recognizes Cohabitation Agreements, which outline how legal, personal, and financial matters will be handled if the couple breaks up or a partner dies. Similarly, some basic estate planning may also resolve some of the legal issues that committed couples, who are not married, face.
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