Insurance Coverage for Unmarried Partners Living Together

Learn more about steps unmarried partners can take to purchase automobile, life, health, and homeowners insurance.

By , Attorney (Cooley Law School)

Generally speaking, unmarried couples can purchase most insurance types at competitive rates, which is usually easy to do, especially if you co-own property. Be sure to shop around because prices can vary dramatically.

This article won't help you decide whether you need a particular type of insurance but will help you sort out some of the issues involved when buying insurance with a partner.

Life Insurance

Life insurance is a topic that many married couples discuss throughout their relationship. But you don't have to be married to take advantage of life insurance protection. If you and your partner are unmarried, but you have assets together (like a home), or you have children, either of you can pay for an insurance policy and list your partner as the beneficiary.

Life insurance may also be on your mind if you're unmarried but want to protect your partner if you die. Many people get life insurance as a benefit of employment or buy their insurance policy through a private company. Either way, you can name your partner as a beneficiary.

Homeowners' Insurance

Unless you paid cash for your home, most mortgage lenders require homeowners to purchase homeowners' (or hazard) insurance. Homeowners' insurance covers the loss of a house after a fire, flood, or other acts of destruction. It used to be difficult for unmarried couples to buy homeowners' insurance together, but this is no longer true. Many companies now write policies for unmarried couples at the same rates offered to married couples.

However, if you're the sole owner of the house, the insurance company may not automatically cover your partner's belongings on the policy. If your partner has valuable personal property, check with your homeowners' insurance company to see whether it requires both household members to be on the deed. Otherwise, your partner should purchase a separate renters' insurance policy.

Renters' Insurance

Renters' insurance protects tenants against the loss of their personal property due to theft or some act of destruction. Like homeowners insurance, renters' insurance is easy for an unmarried couple to obtain together.

Insurance companies insure the property, not the owners of the property. And the rates are related to your building's age and security, the neighborhood you live in, and how well your landlord maintains the building. Shop around. You should be able to find one policy that covers both of you, although a few companies may try to charge you more or require that you each buy your own policy.

Automobile Insurance

Purchasing automobile insurance can be a problem for unmarried couples, but not to the extent it once was. If you each own a car, you should have no trouble getting separate insurance. For unmarried couples who jointly own one vehicle, obtaining one policy will be cheaper than getting two (one for each partner). But you may have to shop around to find an agent and company that will allow you to do this.

If you jointly own two or more cars, it's often cheaper to get one policy covering all your cars. Most insurance companies allow unmarried couples to combine coverage—and thereby get discounts and other valuable benefits. But again, not all insurance agents or companies will offer these benefits to an unmarried couple. If you need a breakdown of the costs and benefits of combining policies or keeping them separate, speak with your insurance agent.

If all else fails, consider transferring ownership of both cars to one person (call your department of motor vehicles and ask how you can change the title slip) and listing the other person as a secondary driver. Transferring ownership can be messy, especially if you and your partner breakup in the future.

Domestic Partnerships and Health Insurance

Some cities, states, and private employers offer domestic partner benefits to their employees. And before same-sex marriage became legal, several states had passed laws creating domestic partnerships and/or civil unions which allowed same-sex couples to register their unions in order to obtain the same or similar state marriage benefits that married couples enjoyed. Since the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country, many states have eliminated civil unions and domestic partnerships. However, a handful of states continue to allow them.

If you're in a domestic partnership state, you might be able to obtain insurance for your partner. A majority of the country's largest corporations offer domestic partner benefits. You can find a list of Fortune 500 companies that provide domestic partner benefits, as well as other information on benefits, on the Human Rights Campaign website. You can also contact your human resource director to see if your employer offers health insurance to domestic partners.

Even if your employer does provide domestic partner health benefits, federal law does not recognize domestic partners as spouses for tax purposes. Tax law treats any premium you pay to cover your domestic partner to be taxable income, not a pre-tax deduction from income as it is when the employee is covering a spouse.

Also, be aware that the federal COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) health insurance rules don't apply to your partner if you lose or leave your job. Under COBRA, your employer must allow you to continue health insurance coverage for a certain period of time, as long as you pay the premiums. The law doesn't entitle your partner to continue domestic partner benefits, as would be the case if you were married.

If your employer doesn't provide domestic partner health benefits, and your partner doesn't get benefits through a job (or doesn't work), see whether your employer will agree to cover your partner on its health plan if you pay for the premiums. Group plans available through employment are usually less expensive and often provide better coverage than individual plans.

Workers' Compensation Insurance

In some states, the dependent of a worker killed on the job can obtain death benefits from the state workers' compensation insurance program. Because definitions of "dependent" are broad, courts have allowed unmarried partners to recover these benefits in several instances. For example, a Maryland court awarded workers' compensation benefits to a woman who lived with the deceased worker for many years—giving up her job to take care of the house and raise the children while the deceased provided financial support. (Kendall v. Housing Auth., 76 A.2d 767 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1950).)

In California, a court awarded benefits to a woman who lived with the deceased worker because she was a "good faith" member of his household, even though she was married to someone else. (State v. Workers' Compensation Appeals Bd, 94 Cal. App. 3d 72 (Ct. App. 1979).) And in Oregon, the Workers' Compensation statute states that unmarried cohabitants are entitled to compensation as long as the couple had children together and lived together for more than one year before the worker was injured. (Or. Rev. Stat. § 656.226.)

However, not all courts have been so generous. In South Carolina, a court denied workers' compensation benefits to a woman living with and dependent on a deceased worker because she was married to another man. (Palm v. General Painting Co., 370 S.E. 2d 463 (S.C. Ct. App. 1988).) And in Nevada, a court denied death benefits to the unmarried cohabitant of a deceased worker, even where the cohabitant had previously been married to the deceased worker because she no longer had a "legally recognizable relationship" with him. (Banegas v. State Indus. Ins. System, 19 P.3d 245 (2001).)

Unemployment Insurance

In many states, an employee may obtain unemployment insurance benefits for quitting a job for "good cause." Often, the unemployment board will consider a spouse's decision to leave employment in order to accompany the other spouse to a new home to be a "good cause." In several cases, this benefit has been extended to unmarried partners as well. For example, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that a woman who left her job to remain with her living together partner of 13 years who was relocating his business had compelling reasons to quit and was entitled to unemployment insurance benefits. (Reep v. Commissioner of Dep't of Employment & Training, 593 N.E. 2d 1297 (Mass. 1992).)

The California Supreme Court also awarded unemployment benefits to an unmarried woman who quit her job to follow her partner to another state. (MacGregor v. Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd., 37 Cal. 3d 205 (1984).) However, in that case, the court based its decision mainly on the fact that the unmarried couple had a child together. It's unclear whether the California Supreme Court would rule the same way if an unmarried couple did not have children together.

If you have specific questions, contact a family law attorney in your area for advice.

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