Every time I hear someone say, “Oh, we’re not ready to get married” while either shopping for a house together or heading to the obstetrician’s office, I want to poke my eye out with a pencil. Ok, not literally, but close.
Although I married the man I love after two years of dating (and remain married), the decision to marry is a practical one.
Consider this: when you buy a house with someone, you have made a 30 year commitment. When you sign your name on to a mortgage, the bank is not letting you out of it unless you give them the balance of the loan. Since most people don’t have six figures in cash lying around, odds are good you aren’t going to be able to buy your way out of it. It is much easier, from a legal perspective, to get out of a marriage than a mortgage. A mortgage is, sadly, and from a legal standpoint, a much bigger commitment.
Some people try to get around this by having the house and mortgage only in one name while considering it ‘ours.’ However, if you don’t sign your name on the deed or mortgage, and you aren’t married, you have exactly zero property rights in that house. The fact that you contributed to the upkeep of the house and helped pay the mortgage for 10 years? Irrelevant, should the relationship go south. Basically, you just paid rent. If you were married, however, you would be entitled to a share of the equity – a share of your monetary and labor investment.
And don’t get me started on having a child. Leaving moral and ethical and religious issues completely off the table for purposes of this conversation, if you had a child with someone, you have officially committed to them for the rest of your life. Every ball game, every concert, every holiday, every graduation, wedding, birth of a grandchild, etc., is going to be shared with this person. This is true whether or not you get married. The main advantage to the married route, is that it provides you with an avenue for ground rules. If you are the father, I don’t care what you signed at the hospital. If you haven’t gone to Court to become the official legal father of the child, the only thing you have the right to is the right to pay child support. Anything else is entirely at the mother’s discretion. You have to go to Court for the right to see the child except at the mother’s whim. If the child is in ICU at the hospital? You’re not a relative, and the doctors and nurses may very well not let you in. You may not be able to get access to medical records, so even running a routine errand like picking up a shot record so you can enroll your son in football camp becomes difficult. Likewise, the teachers aren’t supposed to talk to you either.
There’s advantages for Mom, too. You want Dad to be able to take the child to the doctor when you have to work. If something were to happen to Dad, you want your children to be able to either collect social security disability benefits or survivor benefits. I’ve heard a lot of people say that he has no money, and so it doesn’t matter, but the truth is that he might hit the lottery or qualify for other government benefits. You want your children to have the rights of inheritance they would have as legitimate children.
Even if you’re not buying a house or having a child together, merely living together in a rented apartment or house, there are still pitfalls. If you’ve signed the lease together, and you break up, and you leave and he doesn’t pay the rent, the landlord can still come after you even though you haven’t lived there for nine months. If you avoid that problem by being the sole person on the lease, just think how much more impractical it is to break up with someone when you are not only ending a relationship but kicking someone out of their home.
And then there’s the stuff. It always comes down to stuff, doesn’t it? Let’s say you live together for three and a half years, to pick a random number, before you decide it just isn’t going to work and you go your separate ways. During that period of time, you’ve bought a lot of stuff together. The TV. The DVDs. The kitchenware. The sofa. So what happens when she’s leaving the house for good and tries to take the sofa with her when you both paid for it? Can she or can’t she? Truthfully, in Georgia, there aren’t a whole lot of rules for this situation, and it generally ends up making a bad situation (the breakup of a long term relationship) a thousand times more acrimonious than it would have been otherwise. And the Courts won’t be of much help because you don’t have a legal relationship with each other.
I know, I’ve sucked a lot of the romance out of the decision to get married. Sorry, folks. Or maybe I’m not sorry. Would we really be worse off if we made most of our big decisions for practical, rather than emotional, reasons?
This column was written by a lawyer, but is not intended to give legal advice of any kind. It is for general and mostly vague informational purposes only. Your case and your situation can only be evaluated by personal examination of the facts by a legal professional.
(This originally ran in Nov. 2013, but it is a topic that bears repeating).