By John G. Culhane, author of More Than Marriage: Forming Families after Marriage Equality
The law generally does a poor job in supporting adults in various kinds of relationships. Unless a couple (or any other group of committed adults) is legally married, they are largely invisible to the law. But with approximately one-half of all adults now unmarried in the United States, it’s well past time for that situation to change. More Than Marriage: Forming Families After Marriage Equality offers concrete suggestions for improvement on the current status quo.
Using a narrative, interview-centered style, the book shows how the few legal structures available to unmarried cohabitants fall far short of what’s needed. That’s not surprising, because none of these structures – civil unions, domestic partnerships, and a few other, less well-known statuses – were intended to address the many legal challenges facing unmarried adults in committed relationships. Rather, they were mostly designed as expedient compromises in the struggle for marriage equality, which was ultimately successfully waged by the LGBTQ+ community and their allies. So they continue to leave out many other adults who want – and need – something other than marriage. The book summarizes interviews with (among others) elderly siblings, a gay man and a lesbian who raised children together, and progressive couples who wanted something other than marriage to cement their legal relationship, and shows how the law currently passes them over.
More Than Marriage proposes two solutions to the problem. The first is for courts to more consistently recognize the relationships of intimate cohabitating, but unmarried, couples. The second solution represents the more radical – yet common-sensical – contribution. It derives inspiration from Colorado’s designated beneficiary agreement law, enacted in 2009 as yet another alternative to marriage for gay and lesbian couples. But the law didn’t restrict membership to such couples – any two people can enter into these agreements, which provide them with a menu of options for organizing their legal relationship. For instance, they can provide each other with power of attorney, authority over bank accounts, and the right to bring a civil claim for the other’s death. The agreement form allows many other rights and obligations to be shared as well.
These were important and creative steps, but, as the book argues, they are limited and insufficient. Currently, people can enter into only one such agreement, and if either party gets married, the agreement is no longer valid. But why? Adults should be able to enter into multiple such agreements (as long as they’re not in conflict with each other), and these agreements can be entirely divorced (sorry!) from marriage. Recognizing and expanding on the flexibility of Colorado’s ingenious law would represent a dramatic step towards achieving the legal recognition that so many couples need, but don’t currently have access to.
The designated beneficiary agreement law should be expanded and exported to every other state.