The legal rights and responsibilities of marriage: let’s talk about it

Marriage is positioned as a gesture of romance and considered the ultimate symbol of love. And with all the exciting events, a legal contract.

In today’s Western world, marriage is positioned as a gesture of romance and considered the ultimate symbol of love. And with all the exciting events, traditions and moments along the way—from proposals, to the writing of vows, to the speeches, to the honeymoon—it’s easy to forget that marriage is, at the end of the day, a legal contract.

What does marriage mean, legally? What are you agreeing to, contractually? What’s in that paperwork that couples sign on their wedding day, exactly? We’re here to break it down for you, so you can get back to the fun stuff, like finding the perfect wedding DJ.

The rights of marriage

When you sign a marital contract, you are accepting new rights. These vary depending on the state you marry in, but could include:

  • Tax benefits, when you file jointly with your spouse
  • Estate planning benefits, including inheritance rights
  • Government benefits, including receiving Social Security, Medicare, and disability benefits for your spouse
  • Employment benefits, such as obtaining health insurance through your spouse's employer and the right to take medical leave to care for a spouse who becomes ill
  • Decision-making benefits, including the right to make medical decisions if your spouse is incapacitated
  • Financial support, like alimony and child support, and equitable property division in a divorce

Of course, factors like estate planning and financial support are the kinds of things you could (and would want to) customize with a prenup. Without doing so, you’re agreeing to your state’s default marriage laws when you sign that marriage contract.

The responsibilities of marriage

With the benefits of marriage also come a host of responsibilities that you’re legally agreeing to. These can also vary state to state, and could include:

  • Financial support of the children of the marriage
  • Liability for certain kinds of family expenses
  • Sharing income and property acquired during the marriage
  • Financial responsibility for your spouse in the case of a divorce

The above list includes the kinds of responsibilities that you automatically take on when you sign a marriage contract without a prenup. With a prenup, though, you can customize and further define many of these responsibilities based on your personal situation and comfort level.

In the end—or really, from the beginning—it’s important to remember that entering into a marriage changes the legal status of both parties, and gives both parties new rights and obligations.