If your partner passes away before you’re married

  • Prepare yourself for some difficult days ahead, as there is a good chance you will have no legal say in what happens.

  • If there is no will or you are not in it, you may be able to convince the family to honor your relationship financially, if you approach the conversation delicately.

  • If your loved one expressed wishes for their funeral to you, talk cautiously to their next of kin about following them, but be prepared for disappointment.

  • Appeal to any allies you have among the family or family friends for support.

  • If you lived in a common law state, you may have a small chance of being considered legally married.

When a romantic partner dies, the grief can be overwhelming. It can be all the more devastating if you had plans to marry but had not yet officially wed. Getting engaged, after all, is a deep expression of hope, and that has now been extinguished. There are also some unfortunate practical implications: As important as an engagement might feel, it does not carry legal significance, and so you may end up with little to no say in what happens after your loved one’s passing.

Assuming your fiancé did not have a will, or if they did not change their will to include you when you got engaged, being a fiancé does not grant you any legal standing vis a vis your loved one’s belongings. Finding out you are not going to inherit any of their property may make reckoning with your loss all the more difficult.

The same is true of making decisions about their funeral; if they did not establish in writing that you should be the one to make these plans, these decisions legally fall to their next of kin. Thus you may find that your fiancé’s family has no requirement to consult you when planning the funeral, even if you lived together and spent all your time together, and even if your partner had expressed their desires for their funeral to you verbally.

Take a deep breath, and ask friends and family to support you as you contemplate the road ahead. When you are ready, you should start asking yourself some difficult questions. Is there any way to make a claim on your loved one’s estate, or to influence the plans to memorialize them? Where do you stand, precisely, with regard to continued inclusion in your partner’s family? What can you do in both practical and emotional terms to take care of yourself and your future? And what can you do to make peace with the fact that your legal status and your relational status may be so very different from one another?

Will or no will

If your fiancé left a will and did not name you in it, you have no legal claim to their property. This is true even if their will was written before you ever met; as long as they did not write a new one or amend the old one, their last legally created will, no matter how old, determines what happens to their estate.

Things are no more promising if your loved one did not write a will, as you will also almost certainly not be counted among their heirs.

State laws dictate who inherits property in the event that someone dies with no will; if they were not married and did not have children, that most often means their parents or their siblings.

You may want to consider approaching the beneficiaries or heirs to ask if they will acknowledge and honor your relationship by granting you a share of the inheritance. But understand that this could end up being counterproductive; remember that they are grieving too, and it in their pain they may react badly to you asking after material possessions.

Who can plan the funeral?

Most states allow a person to legally determine whether they will be buried or cremated, either in a statement in their will or in a separate document often known as a disposition of remains. In many cases, they will also name someone to make decisions and carry out these wishes. If your fiancé did not leave such legal instructions, then their legal next of kin will be in charge.

If your partner had verbally expressed to you a desire to have their remains dealt with in a certain way, and their next of kin makes a different decision, you may be able to talk to them and convince them that this is what their loved one wanted. Maybe they did not know that your fiancé had strong feelings about this, and you are giving them important guidance.

It is advisable to approach this conversation with delicacy and caution, however; make sure the focus is on what the person you all loved would have wanted, rather than on who knew the person better or had a closer relationship with them. You should also be prepared for the possibility that your fiancé’s next of kin simply won’t listen to you—particularly if they are adherents of a faith that prescribes cremation over burial or vice versa. In this case, after telling them what you know of your partner’s feelings on the matter, your part is done. Unless your fiancé left clear and binding instructions, there is unfortunately not much that you can do if the family makes a different decision.

Many people also choose to leave written directives for other aspects of their funeral, such as what kind of a ceremony they want held, or who should officiate. These instructions are often known as a letter of last wishes, and though they are not legally binding, they are generally followed. Unfortunately, if the next of kin decides not to follow them for any reason, you, as an unmarried partner, generally do not have legal standing to bring them to court to force them to follow their loved one’s wishes. This can vary by state and situation, however, and it is always a good idea to consult a lawyer in your area.

Make sure the focus is on what the person you all loved would have wanted, rather than on who knew the person better or had a closer relationship with them.

What you do have is solid evidence of what your partner wanted to happen, which you can use to try to convince their next of kin to follow these wishes. They may be resistant, and it is important as always to be cautious in how you address the issue, but remind them that what you all want is to honor your loved one’s memory and the person they truly were, including their stated desires.

Thinking of the family

It is critical to remember that you are not the only one grieving; your loved one’s family has also just suffered a loss. Approaching them to discuss aspects like how the funeral should be held or whether you can be included in your loved one’s estate may be fraught. When you decide how to address them, consider your relationship with this family. Is it close? Is it cordial? Is it distant or strained, and has it always been that way?  The answers to these questions will help you determine how best to approach your loved one’s family.

It is also important to go in with clear goals. For example, what specifically do you want from your loved one’s estate? A single object with sentimental value, a large share of whatever there is, or something in between? If you do not have a concrete request but simply want your relationship to be honored and acknowledged, you may come away feeling slighted, or you may stoke unnecessary tensions by suggesting that the family is mistreating you.

If you choose to approach the family on your own, try to be direct and to the point. In the aftermath of your mutual loss, there is much that is unpredictable, including how this tragedy may affect interpersonal dynamics. Being clear and succinct will afford fewer opportunities for misunderstanding.

No matter what the situation, convincing the next of kin will be easier if you have allies among your loved one’s family members or close family friends, who can help you make your case and who likely know the personalities and preoccupations of those involved better than you. If you are close with any of your fiancé’s siblings, for example, try to make sure they understand where you are coming from and try to get them to agree to help you. Before you do, examine whether your shared loss has changed your relationship with that person. Is there a newfound closeness or new distance? 

Also consider timing, especially if you want to have a conversation about possessions. Though this matter may be weighing heavily on your mind, try to raise the question in a calm setting after the initial shock of loss has worn off. Resist the urge to plead your case, for instance, at the funeral or memorial service—even if this is the only time you know for sure you will all be in one place. Instead, when the timing is right, ask permission to visit them at home, or ask them to meet you at a park or a restaurant.

A possible exception: common-law marriage

If you and your fiancé were living together, there is a chance that you may be able claim that you were actually married, and therefore legally able to inherit from and make decisions for them. A legal concept known as common-law marriage allows for couples who are in a relationship that appears to be a marriage but is not formally sealed with a marriage certificate to have their marriages recognized by the government.

In order to claim that you were in a common-law marriage, though, you and your loved one had to have been living in one of the handful of states that recognize such marriages. These states are Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, and Washington, DC. (Several other states no longer permit common-law marriages, but will recognize those that were established before their laws were changed.)

Each of these states has its own requirements for a relationship to be considered a common-law marriage, such as a certain amount of time that you needed to have lived together. Other criteria generally include being able to prove that you considered yourselves married and that you referred to one another as your spouse in public. If you want to pursue this avenue and your state honors common-law marriage, consult with a lawyer who can help advise you on how to properly make your case.

In the end, it is most important to keep in mind that you and your fiancé were committed to one another. Their death does not negate that, and your omission from any will, inheritance, or final wishes has absolutely no bearing on the love you shared. Be careful in your grief not to draw any connection between the legal reality and the emotional one. Take heart from the fact that you found a beloved companion whose memory and love will remain strong and keep you company as you move into the future.