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Alternatives to Marriage
There are many reasons why two people might want to enter a dedicated, long-term relationship which creates many legal rights and benefits, without entering into a marriage.
Marriage alternatives are most relevant, however, to same-sex couples who live in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage. Currently, only a small minority of U.S. states recognize same-sex marriage: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Iowa, and Washington, D.C.
Numerous other states do not recognize same-sex marriage, but offer other unions, referred to as civil unions or domestic partnerships which provide most, if not all, of the rights associated with marriage. These include California, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada.
Therefore, if you are in a same-sex relationship, and want to secure the legal rights associated with marriage for you and your partner, several states give you the option to secure these rights just as an opposite-sex couple would do.
Establishing Rights & Obligations of Marriage
However, most states in the U.S. do not yet have any legal recognition of same-sex relationships. In these states, same-sex couples will have to go to more effort to secure the rights and obligations of marriage.
If you wish to establish hospital visitation rights between you and your loved one, you should give each other power of attorney to make medical decisions on your behalf, in the event that you become incapacitated. You should also check with local hospitals to see if they have some form that can be filed allowing you to give others the right to visit.
If you have strong wishes about being kept on life support, or other important medical questions, you should make these known to your partner through an advance health care directive. If you are unable to marry this person, or enter a domestic partnership with them, you should give them power of attorney, allowing them to make medical decisions for you if you become unable to make them yourself. Otherwise, a hospital might be forced to defer to the wishes of a legal relative (such as a parent or sibling), who may not know what you would want nearly as well as your partner does.
Many people also get married in order to secure inheritance rights. If a person dies without a will, their property goes to their closest living relative. A person's closest relative, for these purposes, is their spouse. If you want to leave all of your property to your spouse, and do not have any other close relatives, you have little reason to make a will, since the legal default option conforms to your wishes.
If you are unmarried, and want to leave all of your property to your life partner, it is absolutely essential that you make your wishes clear in a will. This is because, if you are not married to your partner, you and your partner are considered "legal strangers," meaning that you have no legal relationship, and your partner will not be able to automatically inherit from you.
Thankfully, in every state, you can leave your property to absolutely anyone you want in your will.