You might be sure you want to commit seriously to your significant other. Maybe you've been together a while, and you know you've found your partner for life. But you might be wondering what your next step should be. Is there a good reason to get married and make it official under the law? Or is simply being life partners enough?
To answer many of your questions we reached out to Pantea Fozouni, owner of Palm Desert Law Group, a law firm that focuses on estate planning for families and small businesses. She took us through the positives and negatives of being life partners or spouses and defined each of these. She also provided information about how to become a spouse or life partner. With this guide, you will be one step closer to making the best decision for you and your partner.
Meet the Expert
Pantea Fozouni is a family planning lawyer in California and the founder of Palm Desert Law Group, APC, which focuses on the needs of families with young children.
What Is a Life Partner?
“There is no single or set definition of life partner,” said Fozouni. “Rather, it typically refers to an individual who lives with someone else in a romantic relationship, either heterosexual or homosexual, as if they are spouses but without being legally married.”
Life partners might be mistaken as spouses—they are in a serious, committed relationship and have chosen to merge their lives together—but they didn’t take the extra step to get legally married. “A life partner is typically more than just a 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend,' demonstrating a long-term relationship with the intent of permanence, but without the formal recognition of marriage,” added Fozouni. “Life partners may or may not choose to have children together.”
What Is a Spouse?
Spouses are a little easier to define. “A spouse is an individual who is legally married to another individual,” said Fozouni. Each state has different requirements for couples wanting to get married. In most of them, both people have to prove they are unmarried, have the legal mental capacity to marry and consent to be married and be a certain age.
“Beyond those basic legal requirements, not much else is really required,” said Fozouni. “The individuals can be heterosexual or homosexual. They can choose to live together or apart. They can merge their finances or keep them separate. Their relationship can be romantic or platonic in nature. They can choose to have children or not together.”
Similarities Between Life Partners and Spouses
"Both types of relationships typically involve the parties being in a romantic relationship, though that is not a legal requirement,” said Fozouni. “In both types of relationships, the parties may choose to live together, merge their finances, and generally hold themselves out as long-term partners.”
Differences Between Life Partners and Spouses
The differences between life partners and spouses are mostly legal, said Fozouni: “Spouses have a lot more legal rights and decision-making authority than life partners do.”
For example, if someone passes away spouses have automatic inheritance rights, whereas life partners do not (you can take care of that problem by naming your partner in a will or trust.) Spouses have the ability to make healthcare decisions for their partner. The couple can also file their state and federal income taxes together, which has its financial advantages.
There are also social benefits to marriage. “Marriage is still widely more socially accepted than life partnership, although that feels like it is changing,” said Fozouni.
Not tying the knot also has its advantages, especially when it comes to parting ways. “Life partners can easily go their separate ways after a breakup without much fuss,” said Fozouni. “Since they were not legally married, there is no requirement for them to file their breakup anywhere. There is also no right to any of the other partners’ assets, regardless of whether the assets were obtained during the course of their relationship.” There are also no rights to alimony.
How do you become life partners and spouses?
“Becoming a life partner is as simple as holding yourself out to your friends, family, and world as such,” said Fozouni. The decision is made between you and your partner, and there are no legal requirements to give yourself that title or category.
“Becoming a spouse is a bit more work, but not by much as long as you meet the requirements," said Fozouni. “You and your partner can apply to your local county clerk’s office for a marriage license and then you must go through either a religious or secular wedding ceremony within the time allotted.”
How do you end a life partnership or stop being spouses?
“Life partners can easily go their separate ways after a breakup without much fuss,” said Fozouni. You will need to deal with your personal issues like splitting up property or telling members of your family or friends, but there are no legal requirements to breaking up as life partners.
“It is more difficult for spouses to break up as they will have to file a formal dissolution of marriage, which typically involves a lot of paperwork, including documentation about how much each of you earns, what you own, and what debts each of you has,” said Fozouni. “It becomes even more complicated if you own real property together, have a large estate, have disparate incomes between the spouses, or have children together.”
How does a life partnership differ from a domestic partnership?
Many states in the United States offer another option for couples, which is to become domestic partners. It varies state by state, but in most instances, these couples have similar rights, protections, and benefits as spouses. “They are also subject to the same responsibilities, obligations, and duties under the law as are granted to and imposed by spouses," said Fozouni.
Can LGBTQ couples be life partners and spouses?
Absolutely. Heterosexual couples and homosexual couples can be both life partners and spouses in the United States. Both get the same rights and protections as any other couple.