Combining love and law goes back thousands of years, so there’s plenty of precedence for all the awful stuff that mixture has made us suffer through.
Women didn’t even get to say “yes” to engagements or “I do” to vows until 1140 AD. And now sobriety is required for unions to be legal? Come on.
Celebrities love to wax poetic about the injustice of “the law” defining “love,” which is comical in light of their legacy as poster kids of everything that can go wrong when opting instead for alternatives to marriage.
Marriage Alternative #1: Cohabitation
Why do lawyers have to make everything so complicated? Can’t two lovebirds shack up and enjoy the same rights as married couples do? Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt think so.
The fellow actors started dating in 1997 and relentlessly defended their decision to live together and forego a legal marriage. Mr. Hamm, the same man who built a career making adultery and alcoholism seem glamourous, was quoted saying,
“We may not have a piece of paper that says we're husband and wife, but after 10 years, Jennifer is more than just a girlfriend.”
Aw, isn’t that precious?
Even with an argument straight out of a Nicholas Sparks story, disparaging “piece[s] of paper” seems a bit contradictory. After all, “pieces of paper” are what Mr. Hamm would sign when agreeing to million-dollar gigs, as well as to who gets the $2.5 million Manhattan penthouse if the Hollywood sweethearts decide to abandon their freewheeling cohabitation.
At least let us draw up power of attorney agreements for healthcare and financial management -- we’ll promise to put them down on something other than a “piece of paper” if you hate them so much -- perhaps a stone engraving might suffice?
Alternative #2: Living Will
There are ways to legally register your relationship without technically getting married, but without proper legal counsel you could end up with documents that give your spouse carte blanche to play the Hollywood villain in your not-marriage.
That was exactly what happened in the immensely depressing case of Gary Coleman. After just one year together, the child-actor and Shannon Price split up in 2008. The two continued to live together however, and Ms. Price retained certain rights under a power of attorney agreement.
After a deadly fall, Mr. Coleman entered a coma, and in the confusion of competing wills he left behind (one of which was handwritten and vague), Ms. Price discontinued his life support within 24 hours.
A decision which contradicted the 15-day minimum outlined in one of his wills.
We make a lot of jokes on this blog, but in all seriousness, please involve qualified professionals when it comes to such weighty documents.
Alternative #3: Domestic Partnerships
These “not-quite-but-almost” marriages were by and large a way for same-sex couples to gain access to the same rights as married couples. It was definitely the reason K.D. Lang and her partner Jamie Price went the domestic partnership route in 2009.
But after our judicial overlords legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states in 2015, why does this alternative still exist?
There are situations, joint pensions for instance, when ending a marriage has unfortunate consequences. Domestic partnerships allow you and your new sugarpie to enjoy the fruits of marriage without legally terminating your previous attempt. Just think of domestic partnerships like a mulligan; you get another shot, but you get to keep your old score.
Alternative #4: Common Law Marriage
This alternative often gets oversimplified and passed around like a game of telephone among kindergartners. “If you live with someone for 7 years, the government considers you married!”
Nope...that’s not how it works at all.
The state of Washington calls this a “committed intimate relationship,” and has no strict definition for the arrangement. But in all likelihood, if you live together, have kids, joint bank accounts, and refer to your significant other as your husband/wife/boo boo, you might just be the Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins of your neighborhood potluck.
The problem with CIRs is that they’re more about dealing with splits than they are about the rights you have during the relationship. With some legal maneuvering CIRs can provide enough coverage, but at a certain point, protesting the legal definition of marriage grants “the law” significantly more power over your love life than just jetting down to Vegas for a drive-thru wedding like the rest of us.
Regardless of your reasons for sidestepping marriage, or which alternative you follow, just make sure your assets are covered because:
Love is dead and every one of the couples covered above have already broken up.
And their breakups were just as complicated, if not more so, than a plain old divorce from a plain old marriage.
Give us a call -- plain old lawyers are better than the alternatives.