Marital Rights and Responsibilities in Tennessee
A marriage is a special form of contract that legally binds a man and a woman as husband and wife. There are both rights and responsibilities that are unique to marriage. Under the common law, husband and wife must provide mutual support while married. If there are children of the marriage, either biological or adopted, both parents are the joint guardians of their minor children and are jointly responsible for the care, education, and support of the children. Both parents are jointly responsible to support their children until they are 18 years of age or graduate from high school with their class, whichever occurs last. When parents have a disabled child, their duty to support and care for the child may extend after the child turns 18, possibly even all of the child's life.
Marriage does not change the right of each spouse to buy or sell property as an individual, although title companies may require both spouses to sign when property is sold. Real estate purchased during the marriage and titled to both spouses is owned with the special legal title of "tenants by the entirety" – they each own the whole. Neither may sell his or her interest without the permission of the other. When one spouse dies, the property automatically becomes the sole property of the surviving spouse. Property held this way is better protected from debts owed by just one spouse.
Marriage also provides other special protections for a surviving spouse. If a spouse dies without a will or without a valid will, the surviving spouse will receive a share of the estate through Tennessee's "intestate" law. If the deceased spouse does not have any children (grandchildren, etc.), the surviving spouse will receive the entire estate. If there are children (grandchildren, etc.) the surviving spouse will either share the estate equally with them or receive one-third of the estate, whichever is greater.
The special obligation of spouses to provide for each other continues after death. The ability of one spouse to disinherit the other is also limited. A surviving spouse can decide whether to take what is given in the will or to take the "elective share." The elective share is a percentage of the estate based on the length of the marriage. For example, if the parties were married for nine years or more, the elective share is 40 percent, but if the parties were married for less than three years, the elective share is only 10 percent. See Tennessee Code Annotated § 31-4-101 for details.
Finally, the deceased spouse cannot avoid supporting the other spouse by giving away all of the estate prior to death. If a deceased spouse attempts to give away all or most of the estate, the gifts may be invalidated.
Of course, there are special tax benefits and other special insurance benefits for married couples.