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I must admit, VH1’s Basketball Wives is my guilty pleasure. I can’t wait to tune in on Sunday nights with a home-cooked meal and watch the wreckage … uh … drama unfold. On the last episode, Evelyn Lozada, ex-fiancÃ© of embattled former NBA star Antoine Walker, had me thinking about how the breakup of a long-term relationship can affect someone’s financial standing.
In a previous episode, Lozada spoke through tears as she told her story of love and loss, claiming she was left with nothing but her shoe boutique to financially support herself and her daughter upon her split from Walker. In the latest episode, Lozada went on a tirade against an alleged stalker and the woman yelled back, “You’re not even a wife” (squeeaaal!). But with 10 years as Walker’s girlfriend (and fiancÃ©), in some states Lozada would be considered a common law wife, with all the benefits that come with the title.
So that begs the question: What are your legal rights when it comes to claiming assets at the end of a long-term relationship? Does either party have any rights? How can you assure your financial security upon breaking up?
Turns out, there’s an entire world dedicated to the legal and financial rights of unmarried couples. In fact, living together is ever more popular, according to 2000 Census data. More than 5.4 million unmarried couples are cohabitating. That’s up 72% from 1990.
But the reality is, when it comes to a split, only a handful of states recognize common law marriages, says Andrew Berger, estate planning attorney at Florida-based law firm Becker & Poliakoff. And it takes more than living together for a relationship to be considered a common law union. According to NOLO.com, a Website that offers self-help legal resources, you have a common law marriage when you “hold yourself out to be married,” i.e., you tell the community that you’re married, you identify each other as husband and wife, you use the same last name, and/or you file joint income tax returns. A common law marriage makes you a legally married couple in every way, which means you’ll have to file for a legal divorce if you want to lay claim to any assets, according to the Alternatives to Marriage Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for equality and fairness for unmarried people.
If you live in one of the common law states and don’t want your relationship to become a common law marriage, you must be clear that it is your intention not to marry. The attorneys who wrote Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples Living Together recommend having a written agreement signed by both partners that states that neither party has any intention of marrying the other.
If you live in a state that doesn’t recognize common law marriage, though it sounds unromantic, you should draw up a “living together” contract that clarifies who is entitled to what upon the end of the relationship if you have been merging assets, according to Living Together.
Specific situations in which you’d want to draw up a contract include house ownership agreements — i.e., sharing costs, money, and property; whether you want to keep everything separate, pool all assets or just certain ones. It may also be a good idea to establish property settlement agreements in case of separation.
But there’s always a plus side. “Drawing up boundaries lets you put everything on the table,” says Berger. “You may also say you want your significant other to control what’s going to happen to your assets if something happens to you. If you don’t, the states will decide and your significant other can end up with nothing.”
Renita Burns is a writer and content producer for BlackEnterprise.com.