What rights and obligations arise due to marriage?
UPDATED: February 20, 2013
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Federal and state laws confer certain rights and obligations on a married couple. While marriage rights and obligations are predominantly controlled by state law, there are also over 1000 federal laws that give married people different treatment than single people. While many of these rights and obligations can be altered by a pre-nuptial agreement between the respective spouses, there are certain obligations that arise that may not be avoided by a pre-marital agreement or other contract.
Marriage laws vary some among states, but the following is a list of commonly-given rights by both federal and state law: the ability to file joint federal and state tax returns; open joint bank accounts; receive a “marriage rate” or “family rate” discount on life, health, car, and/or liability insurance; the right to sue third parties for wrongful death or loss of consortium of a spouse; the right to inherit a spouses property without going through probate; the right to receive a spouses state and federal benefits, such as social security, pensions, public assistance, disability, workers compensation, and unemployment; the right to make medical decisions on behalf of a disabled spouse; joint parenting rights; and legal status with stepchildren.
There are certain obligations that come with marriage as well. Some of these obligations may not be contracted out of. For instance, many states have statutes that require a couple who enter a marriage to provide each other obligations of mutual respect. Another commonly codified obligation is the fiduciary duty owed to a spouse. A marriage is a confidential relationship, and therefore there is a duty to act in the highest good faith and fair dealing in any transaction between the spouses. For instance, you may not perpetrate a fraud on your spouse or unduly influence them into signing a contract. These are both examples of obligations that a spouse may not opt out of.
Obligations Avoidable by Pre-Nuptial Agreement
Other obligations, however, may be contracted out of. Some couples draw up pre-nuptial agreements that define the financial scope of the marriage. Many financial aspects of the marriage can be opted out of, such as the payment of the other spouse’s debts, property rights, or the rights of a spouse to receive spousal support after divorce. On the other hand, child support is one financial aspect of a marriage that can never be opted out of. A prenuptial agreement that limits the scope of the financial relationship between spouses will generally be upheld, as long as it was not made in an unfair way. For instance, if a spouse approached the other spouse with a pre-nuptial agreement on the day of their wedding, this will likely be voidable by the spouse asked to sign it.