In the legal sense marital status is a person's state of being single, married, separated, divorced, or widowed.
For the purpose of real estate ownership, it is very important to know a deceased owner's marital status at the time of their death because it can be used to inform of who inherited their real estate. State inheritance laws prioritize spouses as heirs to deceased owners, in addition to descendants (children, grandchildren, etc.).
It is also important to know the marital status of living family members, because the spouse of any married living family member co-owner has a future interest in their owner-spouse's share of the family property. Therefore, any actions impacting the non-owning spouse's future interest must be approved by non-owning spouse.
Gray Areas of Marital Status.
As it relates to heirs property and non-owning spouses, sometimes there are gray areas for the relationship status and determining how to inform the family tree. Perhaps the couple have been together for a long time but never legally married OR the couple has been separated for a long time and never divorced. Some states legally recognize domestic partnerships, but many people are in domestic partnerships without going through a process of having their state recognizing it officially.
At the end of the day, the law is concerned with the legal status. And, documentation is typically needed to demonstrate a deceased person's marital status.
Confirming ownership for gray areas should require:
- common law spouses: official documentation from the relevant state acknowledging common law marriage status;
- estranged or divorced spouses: a divorce decree or other court order confirming the marriage has ended; and
- domestic partnership- official documentation from the relevant state acknowledging domestic partnership status.
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