Empowering Women: Practical Guide to Legal Planning in Relationships

by Tiffani Sharp, Esq

As women continue to break barriers and achieve success in various fields, it’s essential to take steps to secure our futures. When it comes to relationships, whether they be opposite-sex or same-sex, women face unique challenges that can impact our financial security and overall well-being. The gender pay gap in America can create financial disparities in relationships, where women may have lower earnings and limited financial resources. This is why it’s essential for women to be legally wise to protect themselves and their assets in relationships. Unfortunately, many women neglect legal planning, which can leave them vulnerable in the event of a break-up, separation or divorce. Whether you are married, in a long-term partnership, or simply dating, it’s important to recognize the legal implications that can arise and take steps to protect yourself as a woman. Legal planning can help women achieve greater control over their futures and ensure that their rights are protected. This article will provide a comprehensive guide to legal planning for women in relationships, covering everything from prenuptial agreements to estate planning to financial literacy. With the right legal strategies in place, you can take control of your future and achieve greater peace of mind.

But first, let me explain the misnomer about common law marriage in California:

There is No Common Law Marriage in the State of California

California law does not recognize common law marriage, which means that two people who live together as a couple, even if a couple has lived together for a long time and has established a committed and long-term relationship, are not considered married under California law unless they have met the requirements for obtaining a marriage license and having a formal ceremony. Common law marriage is a legal concept that recognizes a couple as married without the need for a marriage license or ceremony, based on their conduct and behavior as if they were married. However, in California, marriage is only valid if it is formalized through a legal ceremony performed by an authorized person, such as a minister or a judge, and a valid marriage license is obtained.

While some states recognize common law marriage, California does not, and this is important to know because it affects a couple’s legal rights and obligations. For example, while property acquired during a cohabitation relationship may be considered marital property in common law states, it is considered separate property in California.

Whether you’re legally married, in a long-term partnership, or simply dating with hopeful prospects for the future, these legal planning tips will help protect you.

Put It In Writing

I recently posed a question on my social media page as to whether or not women should treat romantic relationships like business partnerships. Some of the responses took issue with the comparison of a romantic relationship to a business. A more nuanced statement would have been: put it in writing. Just as I strongly suggest that any business partnership be evidenced by a partnership agreement in writing, romantic relationships need to have their rights, obligations and expectations spelled out in writing as well. A partnership agreement sets out the terms and conditions of the partnership, including the roles and responsibilities of each partner, how income will be shared, and how decisions will be made. This helps to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts between partners. Particularly if there is a combining of assets and liabilities. These are the very reasons why I believe romantic relationships should have agreements in writing as well.

Whether you’re legally married or in a serious relationship, there are legal agreements that can help you protect yourself.

  1. Cohabitation Agreements: A cohabitation agreement is a written agreement between non-legally married couples that establishes the rights and responsibilities of each partner in the event of a breakup. It can outline how individual assets, such as bank accounts or property, will be divided in the event of a separation or breakup. Cohabitation agreements can specify how living expenses and bills will be shared between partners, which can help avoid misunderstandings or disputes in the future. They can also specify how debt will be handled in the event of a breakup, which can protect both partners from being held responsible for the other’s debts. Without a cohabitation agreement, unmarried couples may need to rely on state laws to determine how assets are divided in the event of a separation. This can result in lengthy and expensive legal battles, which can be avoided with a cohabitation agreement. It is recommended to consult an attorney to draft and review the agreement.
  2. Prenuptial Agreements: Prenuptial agreements are legal documents that couples sign before getting married, outlining the division of assets and property in the event of divorce or separation. “Prenups”, as they are often called, can be used to protect a woman’s assets in the event of a divorce or separation. This can be particularly important if a woman has significant assets or if she anticipates earning a high income in the future. By setting out clear expectations around finances, prenups can help to prevent misunderstandings and conflicts between partners. Prenups can also be used to protect family wealth that may be passed down from generation to generation. This can be particularly important for women who come from wealthy families. Prenups can also be used to protect women from their partner’s debts in the event of a divorce or separation. Without a prenup, a woman may be liable for her partner’s debts. Additionally, outlining the terms of a potential divorce or separation in advance, prenups can help to reduce stress and conflict in the event that a marriage ends.
  3. Register as Domestic Partners: California recognizes domestic partnerships for same-sex and opposite-sex couples (note that both same-sex and opposite-sex legal marriages are now protected nationwide as per the 2015 Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges). Domestic partnership agreements can provide women in non-marital relationships with many of the same legal protections and benefits as married couples, such as inheritance rights, hospital visitation, and the ability to make medical decisions for a partner. Domestic partnership agreements can also help clarify property rights in the event of a separation or death. The agreement can establish how property is owned, how it will be divided in case of a breakup or death, and can provide for financial support. Domestic partnership agreements can also provide access to health insurance and other benefits that are typically only available to married couples. This can include employer-provided health insurance, as well as other benefits such as pension and retirement benefits. Overall, domestic partnership agreements can provide important legal protections and benefits for women in California who are in a committed relationship but are not married.

Proper Estate Planning

For women in particular, estate planning can be especially important as it can help protect you in various stages of your relationships. Women can use estate planning tools to ensure their assets are distributed according to their wishes after their death. This can help prevent their assets from being distributed unfairly or unequally, and can provide for the financial security of their loved ones. Whether a woman is married, in a long-term partnership, or single, having a well-thought-out estate plan in place can empower women to take control of their future and provide them with the peace of mind that comes with knowing their affairs are in order.

Here are some ways that estate planning can help women in relationships:

  1. Establish a trust: A trust can be an effective way to protect your assets and ensure that they are distributed according to a your wishes. This can be particularly important for women who have children from previous relationships or who want to ensure that their assets are protected in the event of a divorce. A trust is a legal arrangement in which assets are held and managed by a trustee for the benefit of designated beneficiaries. If a woman wants to ensure her assets are protected in case of divorce or separation, she can create a trust and transfer her assets into it. By doing so, you can maintain control over your assets while also designating how they should be used and distributed in the event of a breakup. Additionally, a trust can provide protection in case of incapacity or death, as the trustee can manage the assets and ensure they are used for the benefit of the beneficiaries. Overall, a trust can be a powerful tool for women to safeguard their assets and provide for their loved ones in the event of life changes or unexpected events.
  2. Create a durable power of attorney: A durable power of attorney gives someone the authority to make financial decisions on behalf of another person in the event that they become incapacitated. This can be an important tool for women who want to ensure that their finances are managed properly if they become unable to do so themselves. By appointing a trusted agent through a durable power of attorney, a woman can ensure that her financial and legal matters will be managed according to her wishes in the event of incapacity. Additionally, a durable power of attorney can provide protection in case of abuse or exploitation, as the appointed agent has a legal obligation to act in the best interests of the principal. A durable power of attorney can be a crucial component of estate planning for women, as it can help safeguard your interests and ensure your affairs are managed according to your wishes.
  3. Create a living will or advance healthcare directive: A living will or advance healthcare directive outlines a person’s wishes for medical treatment in the event that they are unable to communicate. For women, a living will or advance healthcare directive can be an essential tool for protecting their interests and ensuring that their healthcare decisions are respected and followed, even if they are unable to communicate their wishes. This can be especially important in relationships where the woman may not have a trusted family member or partner who can make healthcare decisions on her behalf. By having a living will or advance healthcare directive, a woman can ensure that her healthcare decisions align with her personal values and beliefs and that her wishes are carried out even if she is unable to express them. A living will or advance healthcare directive can be a critical component of estate planning for women, providing you with peace of mind and a sense of control over your own healthcare decisions.

Financial Literacy

Financial literacy refers to the knowledge and skills needed to manage personal finances effectively. It involves understanding concepts such as budgeting, saving, investing, and managing debt, as well as being able to navigate the financial systems and products that are available. For women, financial literacy can be a powerful tool for protecting yourselves in relationships. It can enable you to make informed financial decisions, assert your financial independence, and avoid financial exploitation or abuse. Financial literacy can also help women plan for the future, build wealth, and achieve their long-term financial goals. In this context, financial literacy can be a critical component of empowerment and self-protection for women in relationships, providing you with the skills and knowledge you need to take control of your financial lives and secure your financial future.

There are several steps women can take to protect themselves financially in a relationship:

  1. Understand the financial implications of cohabitation: Women should be aware of the financial implications of living with a partner. For example, in some jurisdictions such as California, cohabiting partners do not have the same legal rights as married couples. This can leave women vulnerable if they have contributed financially to the relationship, but are not legally entitled to any assets. Additionally, understanding the financial implications of cohabitation can help women make informed decisions about sharing expenses and assets with their partner. By having a clear understanding of the financial implications of cohabitation, you can take steps to protect your financial interests and ensure your long-term financial security.
  2. Maintain your own finances: Maintaining your own finances can protect women in relationships by giving you financial independence and control over your own assets. Even if you and your partner share expenses, it’s important to maintain your own financial independence. When women have their own source of income, bank accounts, credit cards, and investments, they are not dependent on their partner’s finances. This can give you a sense of security and autonomy, as you have the ability to make your own financial decisions and have a safety net in case of unexpected events such as job loss, illness, or divorce. Additionally, having your own finances can prevent you as a woman from becoming financially vulnerable if your partner is irresponsible with money, goes into debt, or faces legal troubles. By maintaining your own finances, you can protect yourself from financial abuse and ensure your long-term financial security, even in the context of a relationship.
  3. Build your own credit: Building your own credit can protect you as a woman in relationships by providing you with financial independence and access to credit. When women have their own credit history and credit score, they can apply for loans, credit cards, and other financial products without relying on their partner’s credit. This can give you a sense of autonomy and control over your own financial situation. Additionally, having good credit can help you secure lower interest rates on loans, which can save you money in the long run. If a woman decides to leave a relationship, having a strong credit history can also make it easier for her to secure housing, utilities, and other financial services on her own. By building your own credit, you can protect themselves from financial dependence on their partner.
  4. Be involved in financial decisions: Women should be involved in all financial decisions, including major purchases and investments. This will ensure that they have a clear understanding of their financial situation. Being involved in financial decisions can protect women in relationships by giving them a clear understanding of their financial situation and ensuring that their financial interests are taken into account. When women are involved in financial decisions, such as major purchases, investments, and budgeting, they have a better understanding of their overall financial situation and can make informed decisions about their finances. Additionally, being involved in financial decisions can help women spot potential financial issues or discrepancies early on, which can prevent them from becoming bigger problems in the future. By being involved in financial decisions, women can also ensure that their financial interests are taken into account and that they are not being taken advantage of by their partner. Overall, being involved in financial decisions can help you as a woman protect yourself from financial abuse, ensure your long-term financial security, and maintain a sense of control over your financial situation.
  5. Build an emergency fund: Having an emergency fund can provide financial security in case of unexpected events such as job loss, illness, or divorce. An emergency fund can help women cover expenses such as medical bills, car repairs, or job loss, without relying on your partner’s finances. This can prevent you from becoming financially vulnerable or dependent on your partner in times of need. Additionally, having an emergency fund can help you avoid going into debt or having to dip into your long-term savings to cover unexpected expenses. By having an emergency fund, women can ensure their financial stability, even if their partner is unable or unwilling to provide financial support.
  6. Communicate: Open communication with your partner about your finances is essential. Make sure you are on the same page about financial goals, budgeting, and spending habits.
  7. Seek professional advice: Women should seek professional advice from financial planners, attorneys, or accountants to ensure that their financial interests are protected.

In summary, protecting yourself legally with legal planning is a crucial step towards securing your future in relationships. While it can be challenging to consider the legal implications of a relationship, taking proactive measures can provide you with peace of mind and help you avoid potential problems down the road. Whether you’re starting a new relationship or are in a long-term commitment, it’s never too late to take steps to secure your future. Seeking the guidance of a qualified legal professional can help you navigate the complex legal landscape and find the best legal strategies for your unique situation. Remember, you deserve to have a fulfilling and secure future, and by taking the necessary legal steps, you can empower yourself to achieve that goal.

CLICK HERE to schedule a free “Legal Planning for Women” consultation to discuss how legal planning can help you protect yourself as a woman in your relationships.


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