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  • Cindy Wysocki

Hidden Hazards: The Risks of Stay-at-Home Parenting When You're Not Married to Your Partner

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

In Washington state, being a stay-at-home parent when you are not married to your partner can be a risky decision. This is because of the absence of legal protections for unmarried couples who live together and have children.

First, if a person in an unmarried partnership becomes incapacitated and cannot make legal, medical or financial decisions for themselves, their partner may not have legal authority to do so on their behalf. This is because unmarried partners do not have the legal status of a spouse or next of kin.

Without legal documentation, such as a power of attorney or advance directive for healthcare, their partner may have to go to court to obtain guardianship or conservatorship over their incapacitated partner. This can be a costly and time-consuming process.

Second, Washington State does not recognize common law marriage so if your partner dies without a proper estate plan, you will not be an heir at law. Social security benefits will not be available to you based on your higher-earning spouse’s benefit in the way it would be if you were married. Your children will still be entitled to these benefits as heirs, but especially where step-children and former spouses are involved, the benefit to the children may be diminished beyond what you or your partner would have intended.

Finally, being a stay-at-home parent in an unmarried partnership can be especially troublesome at the time of a breakup. Under Washington law, even if a couple has been living together for a long time and has children together, they do not have the same legal protection as a married couple. For example, an unmarried stay-at-home parent does not have the right to spousal mintenance in the event of a breakup. This is true even when one parent has been employed for a long time in a high-power career that could not have been built without the support of a dedicated parent at home.

In contrast, in a marriage spousal maintenance can be awarded to provide financial assistance to a spouse who may not have the financial resources to support themselves following a divorce. Spousal maintenance can be awarded to a spouse who has sacrificed career opportunities, education or job prospects in order to support their family during the marriage. In a long-term marriage, the goal of spousal maintenance is to ensure that both parties can maintain similar standards of living after the divorce. In a shorter marriage, spousal maintenance helps the financially disadvantaged spouse transition to financial independence. The amount and duration of spousal maintenance is determined on a case-by-case basis, taking into account a variety of factors such as income, earning capacity, health, the length of the marriage, standard of living during the marriage, and the need for further education and training in order to prepare for re-entry to the workforce. However, without marriage, spousal maintenance is not available.

Overall, being a stay-at-home parent when you are not married to your partner in Washington state can be a risky decision. It is important to consider these factors and discuss them with your partner openly and honestly. If you are in this situation and looking for legal advice, call us today.

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