Failure to do the proper paperwork could cost you!

Don't Get Married Without Doing This Paperwork

by Alex J. Coyne

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Nobody gets down on one knee and says, "Honey, let's talk about paperwork." But for a long-term relationship, it's unavoidable. Things like wills, insurance policies, and prenuptial agreements are crucial. Here's what you need to know about the paperwork behind your relationship.

Should you get married at all?

Research from the Pew Research Center shows that one in five adults (25 and over) have never been married. Whether or not to get married is a topic to discuss with your partner early. The legal side is just as important as the rest, and a "yes" or "no? has a huge impact on what you'll do next.

Common law

For common law marriages to be valid, the couple has to (a) intend to be married, (b) live together for an extended amount of time, and (c) live and act as a married couple. Certain details vary by state, and not all US states recognize common law. Those that do include the same benefits for common law as for civil marriages. See for a list of states that do.

A pre-nuptial agreement

Setting up a pre-nuptial agreement doesn't mean you're planning to grab half your things and run. Instead, it just means you're prepared. Why take the time? A prenuptial has benefits for couples, too. Having separate assets can shield your business interests from disaster and protect both of you from prior or coming debt. Also, sitting down to set up a prenuptial is a good way to say, "Here's what you have. Here's what I have. And here's how we can combine it usefully." has a solid example of a prenuptial agreement.

Related: A DIY Prenup That Can Improve Your Marriage

Where there's a will

What's the risk of dying without a will? Passing away without a will means you die intestate.

The Uniform Probate Code (UBC) governs how inheritance is divided. In the case of intestacy, surviving spouses are at the top of the list, then children, then parents, then siblings, and so-forth. If no next-of-kin can be found, assets cede to the state.

Not having a will means what happens after death might be far from what you or your family discussed.

Yes, a will can be handwritten, but a handwritten (or holographic) will has to adhere to certain conditions to be valid. lists guidelines for what needs to be in a holographic will for it to be valid.

Include a Letter of Instruction with your will. This is so the executor knows what to do. This is for special instructions pertaining to what you leave behind. You'll need to include details like the information of your financial advisers, your assets, what goes to whom, and funeral instructions. See this example on Investopedia for what needs to be in your letter of instruction.

Is your family protected? Get your free term life insurance quote from PolicyGenius, a Dollar Stretcher trusted partner.


If you and your now-spouse have children from a previous relationship, you might also talk about adoption. Procedure for adoption (including how long it takes and whose consent you will need to adopt) varies by state. Your best bet is to check with your state and local court clerk. See this adoption guide on Child Welfare Information Gateway for more information.

Storing legal documents

You should always store legal documents safely. It should be somewhere it cannot be stolen, damaged, or lost. Have original, signed copies stored elsewhere (and, just for safety, make electronic copies, too).

Have you and your partner discussed paperwork?


Reviewed July 2017

Take the Next Step:

  • Find out what other financial topics you should address before you get married by visiting the Dollar Stretcher Library.
  • It is never too early to start saving. Compare money market rates with our best rate finder. Now is the time to start saving for your future.
  • Get control of your financial life. Subscribe to Financial Independence, a free daily email that provides you with the tools to help you gain that control and achieve financial independence. Subscribers get a copy of Are You Heading for Debt Trouble? A Simple Checklist for FREE!

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