The hardest part was the moment when I had to sign a document stating that I, an unmarried woman, was giving Dan half the value of the house I’d always called my own and that I was doing so “for no consideration,” meaning I had received and would receive nothing in return. I had to pause for a moment and remind myself that no matter what the document said, it wasn’t like the time I wrapped myself in a white satin gown and pearls and gave myself away for nothing but love. I wasn’t signing my financial independence over to any man—or to the state of California either.
We now own the house together, I tell friends. Most of them thought we already did, just as some of them assume we’re already married.
What we have now isn’t the complete independence I thought I needed, the dependence he feared or the marriage certificate others expect. It’s trust—or, to be more precise, a trust: 15 pages of stipulations and lengthy clauses, all vetted for clarity and comprehensiveness by a lawyer. Building it took many weekend and evening conversations with a yellow tablet resting on the coffee table as we talked about our desire to cherish and shelter each other. We ventured far beyond upbeat generalities, into the ugly possibilities of failing health, financial reversals and even selfish heirs. What seems fair? we kept asking. If one of us dies, what’s the right thing to do for your kids, and mine, and what if that conflicts with the needs of the survivor? How can I dedicate my share of the value of this house to safeguard your independence, even after I have died?
A wedding would certainly be more festive than the weeks we spent fitting this emotional and financial hair ball into linear, unambiguous sentences. But if we married, by the time we sliced the cake we would have signed over to the divorce or probate courts decision-making power over everything not explicitly covered by a prenup or legal trust.
Marriage is a blanket agreement: It’s comforting because it covers everything without your having to get specific about what everything might mean. But for me, our willingness to go deep into the details, even the sad or distressing ones, is complete proof of our commitment to sharing a house, and our lives, with each other—for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, as long as we both, or either one of us, shall live.
Anne-Christine Strugnell is a freelance writer living in California.
Next: Love on the Half Shell
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