Legal Advice from Yetta G. Kurland

Answers to your real-life legal questions

Dear Yetta,

My partner passed away recently after a brief illness. We weren’t married, and she didn’t leave a will. Her family is already acting like I don’t exist. Is there anything I can do to protect the life we built together? Mourning


Dear Mourning,

First and foremost, I am very sorry for your loss.

Generally, when someone passes without a will, state law dictates how their property is distributed. These laws tend to favor formalized relationships and familial ties, and generally require that property pass to your spouse, your children, or other family members depending on whom you’re survived by. For unmarried couples, unfortunately, this can mean that, regardless of the length of the relationship or the depth of mutual devotion, the surviving partner is left having to fight to maintain what they built as a couple.

The good news, though, is that certain assets, like bank accounts, IRAs, and life insurance policies, typically require you to name a beneficiary when you set them up. Since these assets can generally pass outside of a person’s estate, they may not be subject to the laws I described above that set the default rules for inheritance in the absence of a will. Also, anything you and your partner owned together and titled jointly—that is, in both of your names—will usually pass to you directly and not be subject to those default rules of succession.

You should take a moment and make a list of your partner’s accounts and (if you know) how they were owned, be it jointly or individually, and if there was a named beneficiary. Then you can contact the different institutions where these assets are located and start the process of transferring them to your name, if possible. They’ll probably require proof that your partner has passed, which could be as easy as providing them with a death certificate.

In these situations, it’s advisable to contact a lawyer who has experience in this field. They can help shepherd you through the process of securing your partner’s assets and also help resolve any property issues you have with your partner’s family, such as disputes regarding property you owned with your partner that doesn’t have a clear title.

Best of luck, and I’m sorry again for your loss.


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