5 offbeat marriages that may need a lawyer

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Venue, check. Rings, check. Love of your life, check.

All that’s missing now is a trip to see your lawyer.

Look, I know what you’re thinking… because I’m a lawyer when I’m not being a bride, and I hear it all the time. Seeing a lawyer isn’t like a cake tasting or interviewing a band. It’s not fun. It acknowledges some very unromantic things about getting married at a time when what you need most is to enjoy each other so you don’t kill each others’ families.

If you identify as an offbeat couple, however, you probably have some unique issues with the family your marriage will create that shouldn’t be put off until after the last drunk cousin is shooed out of the reception after-party.

If your offbeat relationship fits one of these five categories, you’ll want a consultation with an attorney licensed in your state ASAP, not after you start getting RSVPs.

1. LGBTQ couples

Marriage and civil union laws for same-sex couples are a complete patchwork in the United States. Many couples don’t realize that even if they are legally married in one state, their marriage may not be recognized where they live. This isn’t just a question of civil rights and basic fairness, it also impacts being able to make decisions about shared property, health care, children, and so much more. Even if same-sex marriage is allowed in your state, you’ll want to ask an attorney if other laws in your state that impact married people apply to you.

If one or both of you are transgender, you’ll want to be sure you can get a marriage license in your preferred name and gender identifier with the identifying documents you have.

2. Polyamorous folks

If you thought explaining your polyamorous ceremony to your great-aunt Rose was difficult, imagine having to explain it to a judge. This is one of the few dark areas of the law where a relationship is legal but a wedding recognizing the relationship is a crime. There are laws against polyamorous marriages in every state, though enforcement is very spotty.

Many polyamorous weddings are really non-legally binding commitment ceremonies. That said, to protect who and how you love, talking to an attorney who understands the family you’re building and the risks you’re taking is essential.

It’s even more important to speak to an attorney about child custody and child support if you’re planning on having kids with your partners or already have kids with someone else. There’s virtually no automatic protection for all of your partners, but a creative, understanding attorney can help you build the protections your family needs in ways other than getting married.

3. Married after having kids with each other

Lots of couples have already built a family with children together before they get married. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your marriage license is just a piece of paper — it actually fundamentally changes your legal identity in your state and under federal law and may impact your kids as well.

Talking to an attorney about the benefits to you as legally recognized couple and family can help you take full advantage of your celebration.

4. Married after having kids with someone else

Getting married can affect the terms of a divorce or prior child custody and support agreements. The fact that you have children from a previous relationship definitely impacts property you own with your spouse and what happens to it when you pass away.

It doesn’t matter how good your relationship with your child’s other parent is, agreements that aren’t recognized by the law are unlikely to be enforceable.

5. Married after one or both of you have established careers

“Yours, mine, and ours” isn’t just about kids. Some of the messiest, most complicated problems I’ve addressed for families in my law practice could have been prevented by sitting down for an hour or two and deciding what to do about the property each spouse had before the marriage, and who was going to pay for/own property bought after the wedding.

Talk to an attorney before you start blending together property you had before “I do.” While getting a prenuptial agreement may sound cynical and anti-romantic, remember that you’re also forming a financial partnership you expect to last for the rest of your life. You would carefully consider co-signing on a loan for a family member or starting a business with a friend, wouldn’t you? Then give your marriage partnership the same kind of consideration by talking about the property, debt, and financial expectations you each have with an attorney who can help put those expectations into a clear, understandable agreement.

Now that you know you may need to talk to a lawyer, how do you find one?

Not all attorneys are created equally. For issues like the ones above, you’ll want to…

  • Look for someone with experience in both family law (divorce, child custody, child support) and estate planning (wills, trusts, advanced health care directives) and, most importantly, someone cool with the kind of family you’re building.
  • The internet is your friend. Look for attorneys who are members of groups that address offbeat family issues or have written articles or blog posts about them.
  • Call around, be up-front about what your family is like and what questions you have.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for a free consultation.
  • And above all DO NOT apologize for your offbeat union. The right lawyer won’t make you feel like you need to.

Above all, remember that talking to a lawyer before you get married is like gel inserts in your dancing shoes: it’s certainly not the most romantic part of the wedding but it can help start off your marriage in comfort and confidence.

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