While all countries and localities ascribe certain rights to married couples, things are much less predictable when it comes to couples who are not married. The legal rights of an unmarried couple, if any, depend entirely on jurisdiction. In some places, couples who have lived together for a certain period of time and have held themselves out as married are presumed to be married under what is known as common law marriage doctrine. Other places will afford domestic partnership rights, which typically parallel many marriage rights, to couples in committed relationships. Unless rights have been specifically sought, however, it is rare for a court to recognize an unmarried couple as anything more than two individuals.
In most places, marriage automatically carries with it a host of benefits and responsibilities. Spouses are usually able to have legal and medical responsibility for each other; to be viewed as one in the eyes of the state, for taxation and other purposes; and to enjoy joint ownership of any property acquired during the marriage, among other things. These benefits do not typically attach to couples who have elected cohabitation rather than marriage, or who for reasons of local law cannot get married, as is often the case with same-sex partners. The law is generally more concerned with binding contracts than with personal commitment.
Things are slightly different in places that recognize common law marriage. Most of the time, common law marriage is treated as a functional marriage. Common law doctrine typically requires an unmarried couple to act as if they are married — and sometimes even to subjectively believe that they are married — before common law marriage rights will attach. Most places consider common law marriage a marriage exception, rather than an unmarried couple situation.
Jurisdictions that are willing to give unmarried couples rights usually do so on the basis of some kind of written agreement. Countries and states that grant domestic partnerships and civil unions typically require at least a paper record of the couple’s domicile arrangement. While these records lack the force of a marriage contract, in most places they memorialize that the relationship is a permanent one. An unmarried couple in these situations can enjoy rights that in many ways mirror marriage rights. These rights must be intentionally sought almost everywhere, however.
Not all unmarried couples want the permanence of marriage or civil union. Couples often decide to begin living together before marriage as a way to “test run” compatibility, and many believe that either marriage or living together is a sign of commitment that is permanent enough for the present. For many couples, living together in an unmarried state is a way to remain free of commitment. Many of these relationships persist for years, however, and couples often share property, houses, debts, and sometimes even children. Legal rights may not be an issue for these couples when things are going well, but they become increasingly important when relationships hit problems.
If an unmarried partner becomes terminally ill or incapacitated, for instance, the other may face a legal battle to earn the right to make decisions. Similarly, if an unmarried partner dies without a will, the other may find that the deceased’s biological relatives stand to inherit everything. Couples who simply elect to end their relationships may also run head-on into the law when they discover that there is no divorce equivalent for unmarried people.
A couple that is unmarried and has not filed for any marriage-like protections with the government will, more often than not, be afforded no special privileges or rights at law. Members of these sorts of couples will still have some rights, of course, but they will be the rights of individuals, not the rights of a married couple. It is exceedingly rare for the courts to intervene in the personal disputes of individuals who have never sought legal protection for their union.