Topics on this page
What is Cohabitation?
Generally speaking, unmarried cohabitants are two unmarried people, in a relationship, who are living together. Note that common law marriage cannot be created in Maryland. However, Maryland law does recognize valid, common law marriages established outside of the state. Learn more about common law marriage.
What Constitutes Marriage?
If the couple entered into a legally recognized marriage, then that marriage is recognized in Maryland, regardless of where it took place. This applies to both opposite-sex and same-sex couples residing in Maryland. Couples seeking to marry within Maryland should follow Maryland laws and procedures for obtaining a marriage license, etc.
Whether a surviving cohabitant is entitled to any benefits when one unmarried cohabitant dies depends on the controlling law. Death benefits are especially crucial to a dependent surviving cohabitant who has no independent financial means.
Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act
When a person dies from an injury that arose out of and in the course of their employment, that employee’s survivors are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits in Maryland if the act covers the particular situation. The sole standard for determining survivor’s benefits under the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act is dependency. An unmarried cohabitant who can show whole or part-dependency on the deceased employee at the time of the injury resulting in death may receive benefits.
Read the law: Md. Code, Labor and Employment § 9-678
A dependent is one who was receiving, in whole or in part, the “reasonable necessities of life” from a worker at the time of the work-related injury causing the worker's death. The worker must have actually supported the survivor, and the survivor must have, in fact, relied upon the worker’s earnings for their livelihood, in whole or in part. The Workers’ Compensation Commission, in accordance with the facts in each case, determines whether a survivor is dependent.
There are generally two types of workers' compensation claims by survivors.
- Dependents claim an award of permanent total or permanent partial disability compensation left unpaid at the death of the employee. In this case, the employee has died from causes not related to his or her compensable injury. An unmarried cohabitant would not be able to take this award unless the unmarried cohabitant was designated as the recipient in the deceased cohabitant’s will. However, the children of unmarried cohabitants may have rights of inheritance.
- The second type of claim is the case where the death was the result of and occurred within seven years of the compensable work-related injury. An unmarried cohabitant would receive death benefits in this situation if the unmarried cohabitant was a dependent of the deceased.
There is a general reluctance in federal statutes (e.g., the Death on the High Seas Act, the Jones Act, the Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, and the Veterans’ Administration Act) to grant death benefits to a surviving unmarried cohabitant, even if one cohabitant believed in good faith that they were validly married. The statutes usually refer to surviving “widows” and “widowers.” Courts have construed these terms to exclude unmarried cohabitants. To determine whether benefits are available, refer to the appropriate federal law that covers the specific situation.
If the employee cohabitant dies in a jurisdiction that, unlike Maryland, recognizes common-law marriage, the surviving cohabitant may be able to obtain federal benefits.
An unmarried cohabitant is not entitled to death benefits payable under the Social Security Act, unless the unmarried cohabitant qualifies as a common-law spouse in a state that recognizes common-law marriage. The law of the state where the insured was domiciled (the state where they lived and intended to remain) at the time of death governs. The Social Security Administrative recognizes same-sex couples' marriages in all states, and some non-marital legal relationships. Learn more from the Social Security Administration.
If an automobile liability insurance policy contains a “household exclusion” clause relieving the insurance carrier of liability to members of the insured’s “family” or “household” for their injuries caused by the insured, an unmarried cohabitant may be included. The Appellate Court of Maryland (formerly the Court of Special Appeals) has determined that an unmarried cohabitant is a residing relative when that person abandons their home, puts their belongings into storage, lives in a close family environment, and shares meals together with other household members.
Read the case: Mundey v. Erie Insurance Group, 167 Md.App.444 (Court of Special Appeals, 2006)
On the other hand, if automobile liability insurance coverage is extended in the policy to persons living in the same household, unmarried cohabitants are covered. If the policy only covers “spouses,” then unmarried cohabitants are not protected. Read the automobile insurance policy carefully to see what language is used to designate who is excluded from or included in coverage.
With life insurance, unmarried cohabitants can designate their partners as a beneficiary and to change this designation at a later date.
Wills and Inheritance
Unmarried cohabitants may leave property to surviving partners in a will. This gift may also be revoked later. If the unmarried partner dies without a will, an unmarried cohabitant will not receive any of the property left by the deceased partner. Instead, the deceased partner's property will be distributed to legal relatives of the decedent, governed by state law. Learn about Maryland Intestacy Law.
Whether or not there is a will, an unmarried cohabitant may want to prepare a Letter of Instruction. The Letter of Instruction guides the family on matters not covered by the will. Though the Letter cannot be legally enforced, it can be used to provide the surviving partner with the information needed to close the deceased partner’s affairs. The Letter may include directions for funeral arrangements and indicate family and friends to be notified concerning the death. Additionally, the Letter may include locations of important documents (e.g., life insurance, bank accounts, and other personal papers).
The full tax ramifications of living together, as opposed to being married, are far too complex to examine in detail here. Additionally, tax laws frequently change. At the very least, unmarried cohabitants should know that, unlike married couples, they cannot file joint tax returns. Check each year’s tax tables for unmarried persons and married couples for a simple comparison of the amount of money saved in individual situations. For more information, contact the Internal Revenue Service and the Comptroller of Maryland.