Courts Back These Marriage Proposals

My Jan. 5 column about the legal requirements of marriage reminded lawyer and former law professor Louis M. Brown, a pioneer in the preventive law movement, of an article he edited more than 10 years ago as part of a “Counseling Newlyweds” project he helped start at the Beverly Hills Bar Assn.

The project provided newlyweds with one hour of free legal counseling on the legal ramifications of marriage or living together. Since the project is no longer in operation, Brown suggested that I might offer a checklist of items that newlyweds might review shortly before or after they walk down the aisle. It sounded like a good idea. Besides, my sister, who is about to join the married ranks, would be thrilled. So, with thanks to Brown for sharing his article with me, here are a few legal issues to consider.

Separate Property

--Ownership. Under the community property laws of California, everything that you own before marriage is considered “separate property.” Thus, all your earnings before marriage are yours and yours alone. So if you own your own automobile at the time of your marriage, it will remain your separate property. However, you may want to share ownership of it with your spouse by either making it a part of the community property or by giving your spouse a half-interest in it.


Spouse’s Debts

But changing the nature of the property from separate to community will mean that it can now be used to satisfy your spouse’s debts. In other words, a creditor may reach community property for debts incurred by either spouse. (By the way, whether or not you do change the ownership of the car, you’ll want to talk to your insurance agent, to make sure that your new spouse is covered when he or she drives it.)

--Community property. In general, most property and all earnings acquired after a marriage are automatically considered community property. Interest and dividends payable on separate property generally remain separate, however. Each spouse has a one-half interest in community property and equal rights of management and control.

One spouse can’t give away community property without the permission of the other, but with a will you can leave your heirs one-half share of the community property. And even if you happen to get married in some out-of-state location, the community property laws of California will apply if you reside here.

--Pre-nuptial agreements. Courts will enforce marriage contracts that divide a couple’s assets in advance, so if and when there is a divorce, there won’t be a fight. Agreements that cover personal behavior, like who will take out the garbage, are less likely to be upheld, but some people like them because they help couples discuss and resolve potential problems. (I think they are silly.)

--Children. If you have kids, the law will require you to support them. This is meant to protect the child and save the government from the burden of providing support.

--Life insurance. The law does not require you to have a life insurance policy, but now that you’re married, you might want to consider it. And if you already have a policy, you may want to amend it and add your spouse as the beneficiary. Life insurance is even more important if you have children, because you will want to provide for their security, care and education, if anything untoward happens to you.

--Savings accounts. Speaking of beneficiaries, you’ll want to check any other savings device, such as your employer’s pension plan or bank accounts, to see what name you listed as a beneficiary. You may want to delete Uncle Harry and add the name of your new spouse.

Name Change

--Names. In many cases, women change their last name to that of their husband. In fact, it wasn’t until 1975 that the Legislature passed a law giving a married woman the right to use her maiden name in all transactions. The choice is up to you. However, if you do change your name, you should try to advise all the necessary parties, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, Social Security Administration, insurance carriers, registrar of voters and your employer.

If you don’t do it now, you’ll have to do it eventually, like when you renew your license, or try to vote. It does sound like a terrible hassle, although one letter to each agency, with a copy of your marriage certificate, should suffice. (I’ll have to tell my wife of four years that; she still hasn’t gotten around to telling all of officialdom.)

--Estate planning. Just because you’re getting married doesn’t mean you need a will--it will probably be more important if and when you have children--but it’s not a bad time to begin some estate planning, especially if you have substantial assets.

After you finish picking a wedding dress, planning the wedding party, sending out the invitations and choosing the honeymoon site, there probably won’t be time left to visit a lawyer. But now you should be a bit better prepared to discuss some of the legal binds that will tie you together, or at least know which questions to start asking.