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How Does Estate Planning Work With Unmarried Partners?

Marriage is not for everyone. Many couples are happy in long-term relationships that do not result in marriage or even a legally recognized domestic partnership. But if you are in such a relationship, you and your partner should consider the estate planning implications if one of you passes away. California law does not treat married and unmarried partners in the same way. A spouse has certain automatic community property and inheritance rights that an unmarried partner does not.

Partner’s Settlement Ends Up Hurting Her

That is not to say unmarried partners are completely unprotected. Since the 1970s, California courts have accepted and enforced contracts between unmarried partners. This can include oral promises to treat property acquired by either partner during the relationship similarly to community property. In these types of cases, commonly known as “Marvin petitions,” the surviving partner may seek to enforce these promises.

A partner seeking to enforce an agreement through a Marvin petition must be mindful of the time limits governing such claims. A recent California appeals court decision offers a useful illustration.

In this case, an unmarried couple lived together for more than 20 years. One partner died in 2012 and did not leave a will. His daughter and his surviving partner then contested who should be administrator of his estate.

The daughter and the partner eventually reached a settlement just past the one-year anniversary of the man’s death. Among other things, the agreement said the partner would file a Marvin petition to “determine right of ownership” of the house and other property that she shared with the decedent.

When the partner eventually filed her petition, the daughter, now acting as administrator of her father’s estate, objected, arguing that there was a one-year statute of limitations on such claims, which had now expired. The partner replied the daughter had “waived the statute of limitations” based on the terms of their previous agreement.

Unfortunately, the partner was out of luck. The courts determined the agreement with the daughter did not constitute a valid waiver of the one-year statute of limitations. For one thing, the agreement itself was signed after the statute of limitations had already expired. Second, the agreement only acknowledged that the partner would file a Marvin petition; there was no language expressly waiving any defense to such a petition that the estate might raise. Nor did the partner’s initial objections to the daughter’s appointment as administrator of the estate constitute a timely Marvin petition, according to an unpublished decision by the California Fifth District Court of Appeals.

No Substitute for Competent Estate Planning

One judge on the Fifth District panel wrote separately to express his displeasure with the daughter, who “was well aware the statute of limitations had run when the negotiated stipulation and order withdrawing objections to the appointment of administrator took place.” Even though the law required dismissing the Marvin petition, the judge said the partner “did not receive the benefit of her bargain” when she signed the agreement.

This entire situation might have been avoided if the decedent had simply left a will clearly establishing his partner’s inheritance rights. If you are in a similar relationship and want to make sure your partner is provided for after your death, you should speak with a San Diego estate planning attorney right away. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady if you need help with any estate planning matter.

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