(Full disclaimer, I am writing this post as an unmarried; and perpetually single person).
I’ve always been a big believer in marriage. Maybe it was the church I was brought up in, but I tend to hold with the belief that marriage is a sacred institution and something no one should enter into lightly. If your life doesn’t completely and drastically shift upon getting married, you are probably doing something wrong. Even with that mindset, even after studying family dynamics as the topic of the majority of my school projects in college and graduate school; I did not begin to understand the true significance of marriage until I studied the legal effects of marriage. As odd as it made sound, becoming a divorce lawyer has taught me more about marriage then every other educational forum.
It is incorrect to assume marriage is just a piece of paper, a symbolic gesture of a relationship’s commitment. When two people become married, they become legally bound as one person. Marriage creates a host of various legal protections for the husband and wife. In a previous post, we discussed how unwed fathers do not have any rights to their children until they are established in Court. The rights of married fathers regarding their children are established automatically, whether the parents were married years before the child is born, or only married mere hours before the delivery. Even if a husband is not the biological father to a child, if the child is born during a marriage, that father and child have the same legal relationship as they would if they were biologically related. Either way, fathers possess automatic rights to their children when those children are born of the marriage. In addition to creating paternal rights to children, marriage establishes a spouse’s intestate inheritance and equal rights to all property acquired during marriage.
Now, of course, there have been some historical and legal shifts in what marital property ownership looks like, over the years. Originally women, who were the property of their fathers, became the property of their husbands upon marriage. At some point, single women could own property, but lost all their property and inheritance rights upon getting married; while men have always retained their property rights as if they were still single. For many years, the only way a woman could own property, was to inherit it from her husband after he died, if the couple did not have any male children. We’ve shifted this over time, so that women retain their person-hood even after marriage and can still maintain their own property rights during marriage. In my opinion, this shift in women’s rights during the past few hundred years, only stands to deepen the significance of becoming legally bound as a couple. For both men and women, any property that is acquired before marriage, as a part of an inheritance, or as a specific gift, will remain the sole property of that individual. All other property, acquired during and used for the benefit of the marriage, belongs to both spouses of the marriage. It doesn’t matter if the property has one or both spouses’ names on the title, came from a joint or private bank account; or even if one spouse is unaware of the asset or debt; property and financial responsibilities of the marriage, belong to both parties of the marriage.
When a person dies without a will, or “intestate”, his or her property goes to his or her next of kin. If a person is unmarried, that person’s heirs become his or her children, or (grandchild if the children die first). If there are no children, then the heirs become the person’s parents, maybe the person’s siblings if they do not have living parents. There’s a whole list of extended, blood relatives that become potential heirs if one level or class of relatives are not found. However, when a married person dies without a will, the widowed spouse receives all of their spouse’s property. The newly widowed spouse being the deceased’s next of kin. This concept is so common and basic in our culture that it doesn’t even stand out as a significant thing. Intestate inheritance is based off of bloodlines, and how closely two people are related to each other through those bloodlines. Marriage creates a tie even greater than bloodline. Or rather, marriage takes two people who are genetically dissimilar; (we hope, as incest is illegal), and creates a legal bloodline that takes precedence over all other blood and kinship connections. I think this legal union of person-hood goes unnoticed by most people in our modern culture, until they have to disentangle themselves from a marital union during a divorce. Assisting clients through the divorce process, has only stood to reinforce to me the seriousness of marriage for an individual couple, and how important the institution of marriage may be to our society. As Valentine's Day approaches this year, my advice to all unwed couples out there who might be considering getting hitched: 1. Congratulations, and 2. Make sure you've thought it through, so you don't end up in my office down the road.