In the past, California considered marriage the golden standard for cohabitation and inheritance rights. Now, the state has taken some pains to provide unmarried but otherwise committed couples the same rights as their wedded counterparts. However, California law does not provide all cohabiting partners the standing and entitlement necessary to avoid estate planning in its entirety. Estate planning for unmarried couples

Registered and Unregistered Domestic Partnerships

Compared to other states, California is exceptionally liberal in its approach to the rights of unmarried couples. For example, same-sex and heterosexual couples who wish to solidify the legal standing of their relationship can register their domestic partnership.

In general, a registered domestic partnership provides all of the same benefits and entitlements as marriage, including:

  • The ability to include a domestic partner on a health insurance policy
  • The power for a partner to make financial and medical decisions on the other partner’s behalf, in the event that they are ever physically or mentally incapacitated
  • The right to apply to adopt an unrelated minor child

However, even though signatories to a registered domestic partnership might be afforded the same rights enjoyed by married couples, these are not extended to other cohabiting partners in long-term, committed relationships.

Estate Planning Complications for Unregistered Domestic Partners

Despite its liberal stance on registered domestic partnerships, California affords few protections to other cohabiting couples. Without an estate plan, unmarried partners are entitled to nothing in the event that one partner declares bankruptcy, dies, or becomes incapacitated.

For example, many cohabitating partners try to protect one another from insolvency by maintaining separate financial accounts. However, this can lead to other problems, both within the relationship and in the eyes of the law.

Consider that:

  • Separate accounts could engender communications difficulties
  • Separate assets will not necessarily be treated as truly separate in the event that one partner declares bankruptcy
  • Separate accounts can lead to administrative difficulties during probate, especially if the other partner has not explicitly been named the estate executor

How Estate Planning Benefits Unmarried Couples

Since California’s Probate Code presumes that most adults have the legal capacity to make critical estate planning decisions, a well-considered estate plan allows unmarried couples to care for one another by:

  • Declaring the other partner executor of their estate
  • Designating the other partner inheritance and property rights through a will or revocable living trust
  • Designing a financial plan that privileges the other partner through beneficiary designations
  • Delegating the other partner the financial or medical power of attorney 

With the right guidance, cohabiting couples can construct an estate plan that privileges their respective partners to nearly the same extent as their married counterparts.

Contact an Estate Planning Attorney Today

An estate plan offers couples—married or not—surety and peace of mind. The Law Firm of Kavesh, Minor & Otis, Inc. has decades of experience helping Californians of all backgrounds cement their legacies and protect their loved ones from uncertainty. Please send us a message online, or call us at 1-800-756-5596 to schedule your free initial consultation.


Philip J. Kavesh
Nationally recognized attorney helping clients with customized estate planning guidance for over 40 years.
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