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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.
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. On January 1, 2013, same sex marriages occurring within Maryland became legal. Both opposite-sex and same-sex couples seeking to marry within Maryland should follow Maryland laws and procedures for obtaining a marriage license, etc.
If one unmarried cohabitant dies, is the surviving cohabitant entitled to any benefits? The answer 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 his or her 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 that he or she was wholly or partly dependent on the deceased employee at the time of the injury resulting in death may receive benefits.
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 workers’ death. The worker must have actually supported the survivor, and the survivor must have, in fact, relied upon the worker’s earnings for his or her 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 he or she 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 he or she 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 he or she was validly married. The statutes usually refer to surviving “widows” and “widowers,” and 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 he or she qualifies as a common-law spouse in a state that recognizes common-law marriage. The law of the state where the insured was domiciled at the time of death governs. The Social Security Administrative recognizes same-sex couples' marriages in all states, and some non-marital legal relationship. 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 is not excluded. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has determined that an unmarried cohabitant is a residing relative when that person abandons his or her home, puts his or her belongings into storage, lives in a close family environment and shares meals together with other household members.
Read the law: 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, one member of either an opposite-sex or same-sex couple is free to designate his or her partner as a beneficiary and to change this designation at a later date.
An unmarried cohabitant may leave property to his or her surviving partner in a will. He or she may also revoke this devise or bequest later. In the absence of a will, an unmarried cohabitant will not receive any of the property left by his or her deceased partner. This is also true for unmarried same-sex couples.
If the unmarried partner has not written a will, state law governs the division of his or her property. Any part of the estate of the deceased partner that is not disposed of by will shall be distributed to legal relatives of the decedent. Learn more about Maryland intestacy laws.
Whether or not there is a will, an unmarried cohabitant may want to prepare a Letter of Instruction. The purpose of the Letter of Instruction is to guide 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 concerning 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. You can 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.