In modern relationships, it’s no wonder that some couples are looking for alternatives to traditional marriage. Modern divorce rates are high, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t want to form long-lasting stable relationship. There are many reasons that couples may seek out alternatives to traditional marriage, such as religious reasons and financial considerations. 

A couple’s legal marital status can have legal implications for other areas of life, such as access to medical care, retirement benefits, tax consequences, and may affect the terms of student loan repayment (if one of the parties is on an income-based repayment plan). Marital status can also affect the parties’ citizenship or immigration status, as well.

What are Some Alternatives to Traditional Marriage?

There are several alternatives to traditional marriage, each with its own set of circumstances and legal implications. Some common alternatives to traditional marriage include:

  • Cohabitation: Cohabitation involves a couple living together in the same residence without being legally married. While this option used to be viewed as culturally abnormal, it has become far more accepted in modern relationships. 

    • Usually, cohabiting couples are not afforded the same rights as married couples. However, they can spell out their rights in a written agreement called a cohabitation agreement, which outlines the rights of each person regarding property and other related issues. 
    • This alternative to traditional marriage is easy to form and easy to end–if you no longer want to be in a relationship, you simply end the relationship and move out (while paying attention to the terms of the cohabitation agreement, of course). Other traditional marriage alternatives are not so easy to create and break.

  • Common Law Marriage: While common law marriages were once widely recognized, they are currently not available in all states. However, where they are available, the couple can be recognized as a married couple even though they never had a wedding or obtained a state marriage license. 

    • Usually there are specific requirements that must be met for couples to be considered common law married (such as being of legal age to get married, not being married to anyone else, and having cohabitated for a specific period of time), and those requirements are specific to each state. 
    • When a couple is considered common law married, they are able to enjoy all of the same rights as traditionally married couples despite not having a state marriage license. 
    • Keep in mind however, that while common law marriage may appear simple on the outside, once you are in one, you cannot end the legal relationship so easily. While a cohabitation can end when one of the parties moves out of the residence, a common law marriage can only be legally ended through divorce, even though there is no marriage license involved.

  • Civil Unions: Civil unions generally grant a couple the legal status of a married couple, but only within the state where the union occurs. The couple must file with the state for a civil union, and after the union is approved, they receive the same benefits as a married couple. 

    • This option is currently only available in a limited number of states. In years past, same-sex couples exercised this option in order to receive marital rights and benefits when the option of legal marriage was not available.

  • Domestic Partnerships: A domestic partnership is similar to marriage in many states, creating a legal relationship for the couple and granting certain rights and privileges according to the status. Depending on where the partnership is created, the couple may be treated just as if they were legally married. 

    • However, in many areas a domestic partnership is treated more like a cohabitation arrangement, with the couple receiving far fewer rights and benefits than if they were legally married.

While many civil unions and domestic partnerships were converted to traditional marriages after the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage, some couples still prefer not to enter into traditional marriage and are comfortable with the benefits that these alternative arrangements provide. Keep in mind that if you choose to enter into a civil union or domestic partnership, that marriage alternative may not be recognized by other states.

Which Alternative is Right for Me and My Partner?

It is important to keep in mind that not all of these options are available to everyone or even in every state. The requirements for each option may also vary from state to state, as well, and you will need to fulfill the requirements for your state in order to enter into your chosen marriage alternative.

Alternatives to traditional marriage often face particular issues when it comes to medical benefits and hospital visitation rights. Under some marriage alternatives, a person can visit a partner who has been admitted to the hospital, while that right may not be available under other domestic arrangements. 

Another concern that is affected by the couple’s domestic status involves work-related benefits, such as retirement and pension plans or company vacation packages. These benefits may occasionally be transferred to your partner, but that transfer depends on your legal marital status. Not only that, but there are also certain federal benefits that are only extended to married couples, and are not available to those in other domestic arrangements.

Finally, one of the big benefits that a traditional marriage offers is inheritance rights. In the event that a partner unexpectedly passes away, if your partnership is not legally recognized then the surviving partner can lose any rights or chance to inheritance. 

While most states will recognize valid marriages made in other states, it can make the situation more complicated than necessary. For example, common law marriage is legal in Colorado, there if the couple formed a valid common law marriage there then other states will honor that as the basis of marriage. Even if the other states, like California, does not allow people to form common law marriages, so long as it was correctly formed and recognized in Colorado then they will honor Colorado’s authority.

However, this can take a lot of time and effort to prove. In the event of a partner’s unexpected passing and if they didn’t have a will, then the surviving partner can be bogged down in paperwork and attorney fees while the deceased partner’s family might be claiming inheritance.

There is a reason why same-sex couples fought so hard to be allowed to marry. Whether it’s to be recognized as valid citizens in the eyes of the law, or to have the same protects as heterosexual couples. In the end, there are reasons why a legal, traditional marriage has advantages over other forms of legally recognized partnerships. 

Should I Talk to a Lawyer about Traditional Marriage Alternatives?

If you are considering alternatives to traditional marriage, you may want to talk to a qualified family lawyer. Your attorney can explain what your rights and options are under the law of your state, and can advise you on the best alternative that suits the needs of your current and potential domestic situation. If court hearings are necessary, your lawyer can also draft the necessary documents and represent you in court.