In the United States, marriage can be generally defined as a binding and legal relationship between two consenting adults. Many couples who are able to legally marry choose to do so because of the numerous legal protections and financial benefits that are offered to married couples, but are not offered to unmarried couples.

Some of the most common examples of such legal and financial benefits include:

  • Jointly filing taxes and receiving more advantageous tax breaks that those who are not married;
  • Healthcare and visitation rights, such as the right to visit their partner in jail or in the hospital, and the right to make medical decisions on behalf of their partner; and
  • Various property rights, such as the right to own property as tenants by the entirety.

Legal marriages as recognized by the United States has a set of criteria for determining who is allowed to get married:

  • The legal age in which a person can get married is 18, although a person who is at least 16 years old may be able to marry with parental consent;
  • The marrying couple must be of mental capacity to understand the significance of the legal contract that they are entering into;
  • Polyamory and polygamy are not legally accepted in the United States, meaning that both partners must be single and unmarried; and
  • Close relatives are not allowed to marry, as incest is not acceptable in the United States.

As you can see, a couple’s legal marital status can affect other areas of their life, such as access to medical care and how their income is taxed. Marital status can also affect student loan repayment if one of the parties to the marriage is on an income-based loan repayment plan. Most importantly, marital status can affect citizenship or immigration.

What Are Some Of the Legal Alternatives to Traditional Marriage?

In terms of legal alternatives to traditional marriage, there are several options, each with its own legal implications. Some examples of the most common alternatives to traditional marriage include:

  • Cohabitation: This would be when a couple is living together in the same residence, without being legally married. Generally speaking, cohabiting couples are not granted the same legal rights and protections as traditionally married couples. This also means that unmarried cohabitants are not responsible for adhering to marriage and divorce laws. Some cohabitating couples may choose to create a cohabitation agreement, which clarifies the rights of each person involved in the relationship regarding property and other related issues;
  • Common Law Marriage: In the past, common law marriages were widely recognized; currently, this type of alternative is not available in all states. Where available, the couple can be recognized as a married couple although they did not obtain a state marriage license. When a couple is considered to be common law married, they are entitled to all of the same rights as traditionally married couples despite not having a state marriage license. However, this also means that a common law marriage may only be legally terminated by going through divorce proceedings. There are some specific requirements that must be met for couples to be considered part of a common law marriage. Some examples of these requirements may include:
    • Being of legal age to get married;
    • Not being married to anyone else; and
    • Having cohabitated for a specific period of time.
  • Civil Unions: Civil unions are unique in that this alternative grants a couple the legal status of a married couple, but only within the state where the union occurs. An example of this would be how the state of Colorado allows for civil unions, but the state of Texas does not. A couple joined in a civil union in Colorado would need to prove their union if they moved to Texas. In order to receive the same benefits as a married couple, the couple must file with the state for a civil union which must then be approved; and/or
  • Domestic Partnerships: A domestic partnership is similar to marriage in many states in that it creates a legal relationship for the couple. Additionally, domestic partnerships grant certain rights and privileges to those involved. It is important to note that with the legalization of same-sex marriages in the United States, very few states recognize domestic partnerships. Because of this, there are many areas in which a domestic partnership is treated more as a cohabitation arrangement. What this means is that the couple receives far fewer rights and benefits than if they were legally married.

Again, many civil unions and domestic partnerships were converted to traditional marriages after the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage. However, some couples still prefer not to enter into traditional marriage, and prefer the benefits that these alternative arrangements provide. It is important to reiterate that if you choose to enter into a civil union or domestic partnership, that specific marriage alternative may not be recognized by other states.

What Else Should Be Considered When Thinking About Traditional Marriage Alternatives?

One of the biggest issues with alternatives to traditional marriage is that they often face issues associated with medical benefits and hospital visitation rights. Under some marriage alternatives, one partner can visit the other who has been admitted to the hospital; that right may not be available under other alternatives, or even under the same alternative but in a different state.

Something else to consider would be work-related benefits, such as retirement and pension plans. While such benefits can be transferred to your partner, that transfer is usually dependent upon your legal marital status. Additionally, there are certain federal benefits that are only extended to married couples; meaning, they are not available to those in other domestic arrangements.

One of the biggest benefits that a traditional marriage offers is inheritance rights. Should a partner unexpectedly pass away and their partnership is not legally recognized, the surviving partner could lose any rights or chance to inheritance.

As previously mentioned, although most states will recognize valid marriages made in other states, there are many complications associated with doing so. The previously used example was how common law marriage is legal in Colorado, but not in Texas. If the couple formed a valid common law marriage in Colorado, other states such as Texas will honor that as the basis of marriage with proof. Even if the other states do not allow people to form common law marriages in their state, so long as the union was correctly formed and recognized in Colorado, then the new state will honor Colorado’s authority.

This would take a considerable amount of time and effort to prove. Should a partner die unexpectedly without a will, the surviving partner will have to face paperwork and attorney fees while the deceased partner’s family would legally be able to claim inheritance.

These considerations are just a few of the reasons why same-sex couples have fought so hard to be allowed to marry. Being allowed to marry plays a part in being recognized as valid citizens according to the law, and having the same rights and protections as heterosexual couples. There are numerous reasons why a legal, traditional marriage has advantages over its alternatives.

Should I Speak With an Attorney About Traditional Marriage Alternatives?

If you are considering entering into a traditional marriage alternative, you may wish to consult with an experienced and local family lawyer. It is important to consult with someone in your area, as the types of marriage alternatives that are legally recognized vary so greatly from state to state.

An experienced and local family law attorney can help you determine which alternatives may be available to you, and provide advice regarding how to begin the process of applying or registering. Finally, an attorney will also be able to file any necessary legal paperwork on your behalf, and represent you in court as needed.