This is week 9 of our Wedding on a Budget series. We’ve talked about all the fun and romantic parts of getting married. But the one topic we haven’t discussed is probably the least romantic aspect of planning your marriage – filing the documents you need to protect yourself in the absence of legal recognition of your marriage. Heterosexual couples have the benefit of filing for a marriage license and calling it a day. Same sex couples, on the other hand, need to file a variety of legal documents and the cost of filing them is a huge burden for our community.

Melanie Rowen, an attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, advises same sex couples to divide their legal planning into two different contexts: health care and property rights.

Health Care:
If you or your partner gets sick, you want to make sure that you can visit one another in the hospital. A Hospital Visitation Authorization will ensure that you are admitted to the hospital. There is a general form that you can file, but if you know you will be admitted to the hospital (for a routine surgery, etc.), be sure to ask the hospital for their form as well.

The next document you will need is called a Health Care Proxy or Medical Power of Attorney This gives your partner the authority to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to do so yourself. The default under the law is that this authorization would be given to a living relative, such as a parent, child, or sibling. Be aware, however, that you will need to make sure that your health care proxy also has a visitation authorization. Because the hospital staff very well could deny your proxy the right to be in the hospital without that piece of paper, even if your partner has been authorized to make medical decisions on your behalf.

An Advanced Health Care Directive is a document that specifies which decisions you want your partner to make for you in different circumstances. Rowen recommends this document for all couples, not just same sex couples, because it’s important to have a conversation with each other about what your wishes are in regards to your medical care. Nobody wants to end up in a situation like Terry Schiavo.

Couples who live in states that recognize same sex marriage should also consider filing these documents. If you’re traveling, the state that you’re visiting may not recognize you and your partner as spouses. So take the time to file your paperwork.

Property Rights
Once couples start mingling their finances and owning property together, they need to protect their assets. A Cohabitation Agreement is the queer equivalent of a prenup and “it’s something that ya gotta have, cuz when she leave your ass, she’s gonna leave with half.” (Where my Kanye fans at?) This agreement doesn’t actually get filed with the court until it’s actually needed. But it will spell out who gets what in the event of a break up. You and your partner need to talk about your intentions in the beginning of your relationship. What belongs to both of you and what belongs to you as individuals? If you own a house together and your relationship ends, will one partner have to buy the other person out of their share? Or will you sell the house and split the proceeds? Getting these decisions on paper while you are still in love is very important and can prevent a lot of frustration and misunderstanding down the road. It’s also beneficial to revisit these documents every few years, because circumstances change and these will need to be updated.

Wills. Everyone should file one, because without a will your property will go to whomever the law chooses. The default on this is a living relative, such as a parent, child, or sibling. Make sure your will covers financial assets and not just physical property.

Right of Survivorship is a clause that can be included when a couple has joint ownership of a home or they have joint bank accounts with each other. This is something you should discuss with your bank to make sure you know what the terms of your accounts are.

Undoubtedly, the cost of hiring an attorney and filing court documents is something that you and your partner will probably want to plan for outside of the $2000 budget you have set for your wedding and reception. However, I wanted to bring up the topic during the course of our wedding planning series because this is the most important step you can take to make sure that you and your partner have some form of legal recognition of your union.

If you need help finding an LGBT friendly lawyer in your state, contact the National Center for Lesbian Rights. They have a pamphlet available online that covers all of these documents in greater detail.