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Lawyer Can Clarify the Ties That Bind

Marriage is more than a romantic commitment; it is a legal commitment between you and your spouse.

Even though you say your vows in front of a judge, you are not required to consult a lawyer before you visit the altar. You must see a doctor, because a blood test is required. It might also be worthwhile to see a lawyer.

But whether you consult a lawyer or read some of the excellent self-help legal books that explain these concepts, you should be aware that marriage raises a number of legal issues.

A woman may want to know whether she is required to change her name or if she must make special arrangements to keep her maiden name.

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Keeping a Maiden Name

The “Jacoby & Meyers Practical Guide to Everyday Law” reports that in 48 states, all a woman has to do to keep her maiden name is to continue using it. In Alabama, a special form is required to keep your maiden name, and in Hawaii, the marriage certificate must include the name you will use, according to the book.

In some ways, it may be more difficult to take on your spouse’s name. You’ll have to inform government agencies, such as the Social Security Administration and the Department of Motor Vehicles, of your name change, and they may require a copy of your marriage certificate before they change your name on your records.

The new Jacoby & Meyers book by Gail Koff, one of the founding partners of the national legal clinic, contains an entire chapter devoted to legal rights in a marriage.

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In a recent interview, Koff gave an example of one client who would have been better off if she had consulted a lawyer before the marriage. The woman was asked by her husband-to-be if she would co-sign on a number of loans he had. Although she was not enthusiastic about signing, she felt that she couldn’t simply say no. Seven years later the couple was divorced, and, “She is still paying the consequences,” Koff said.

“People need to think of lawyers as ombudsmen who have helpful information for them, rather than as hired guns,” Koff said. “For better or worse, the law is so much a part of our lives today, and people really need to use it effectively.”

There are a variety of legal issues you should consider when you are getting married.

You may want to consider a prenuptial agreement, especially if this is a second marriage and you or your spouse owns a lot of property. This is a legal contract. Usually, it simply sets forth your understanding about who owns what property--to avoid a property dispute if you are divorced. Some people find that writing a prenuptial agreement that includes all of the rights and duties of each of the partners--who should do the dishes, who should pay the bills--helps the couple understand what each expects from the marriage.

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Agreements Explained

The Jacoby & Meyers book contains a brief explanation of prenuptial agreements and some of the common provisions found in them. The author even admits that she negotiated a prenuptial agreement with her husband before they were married.

If you are considering such an agreement, each partner should consult his or her own attorney, and the agreement should by written by a lawyer.

You should also check your life insurance policy, bank, IRA and other savings accounts to see who is listed as the beneficiary. You may want to delete your older sister and substitute your new spouse as the beneficiary of these accounts.

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You should also inform your auto insurance carrier of your marriage because many of them offer a discount for married couples.

You’ll also want to begin thinking about writing a will.

You may need a lawyer to consult on some of these projects. The Los Angeles County Bar Assn. operates a lawyer referral service. The telephone number is (213) 622-6700. The Orange County Bar Assn. lawyer referral service number is (714) 835-8811.

Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, The Times’ senior staff counsel, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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