Unmarried couples who choose to live together often don’t worry about whether they have any legal rights unless and until their relationship falters. Coming into a new relationship, the better move is to discuss each person’s expectations of the relationship and the other person. After an agreement has been reached on critical issues, these expectations can be reduced to a formal, binding agreement. This is important because it can help avoid disputes in the future of the relationship, whether or not the couple stays together.
Married people have certain rights because they took steps to formalize their relationship in the eyes of the law and the government. These rights include property division and spousal support, should they later separate or divorce. Unmarried couples lack these rights and protections, although they may choose to enter into an agreement to grant each other these rights.
When a couple gets married, they obtain certain property rights by virtue of their legal relationship. The specific rights and responsibilities they acquire are dictated by the laws of the state where they live. You can read more about the many rights accorded to married couples at our earlier article “Tell Me about the Rights and Benefits of Marriage . . .”.
For example, in some states, known as “community property” states, when one member of a couple obtains an asset while married, the other partner is usually considered an owner of that property. This is true even if the other partner is not a formal owner of the property on the title.
Yet another important right married couples have is the right to receive part of the marital property in the event of divorce or legal separation. All states give spouses some form of this right to own part of the marital property. It is often known as “equitable distribution.”
Cohabitation Property Rights for Unmarried Couples
Conversely, an unmarried person has no right to the property of his or her live-in partner unless very narrow circumstances exist, and these circumstances depend on the state you live in. Two examples of situations in which a property right may exist are when both partners are legal owners of the property (on the deed or title) or when both sign a contract to buy the property.
You may also choose to grant each other property rights by executing a cohabitation property agreement, setting forth how you want to treat the property you already own, as well as any property you acquire in the future. A property agreement is also a good place to address how you want to divide property if your relationship fails. In many instances, for example, one partner allows the other to buy out his or her interest in the home they share. A well-drafted property agreement should also address, in conjunction with individual wills, what each partner wants to happen to his or her property in case of death. If this is not done, state law will dictate who gets property at that time. Most often, this is a family member.
Right to Support
Married couples assume a legal responsibility to support one another that unmarried couples do not have. The right to spousal support, also known as “alimony,” grows out of this duty to support each other after a married couple separates or divorces.
An unmarried person, on the other hand, generally has no right to expect his or her partner to provide support if the relationship ends. Occasionally, you may read or hear about something called “palimony.” In a few states, courts have rarely allowed one unmarried partner to recover support payments from the other, and the media has called this “palimony.” However, this is not a legal term, and it is granted only rarely.
Because support is so rarely granted by a court, it is critical that an unmarried couple agree on this issue and commit their agreement to writing if they want to grant a right to support. The most common reason for this would be one partner quitting school or a job to stay at home, thereby taking a career detour that hinders his or her growth and earning capacity.
If you have been living with your partner for some time and consider yourself married despite the lack of a marriage certificate, it is important that you know about something called “common law marriage,” which is currently available in a small minority of states. In those states—Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah—you may be considered married by the state if certain requirements are met. When this is the case, you will have the rights of a married person. However, the standards of a common law marriage are very limited, and you should not plan to take advantage of them without consulting a licensed, experienced family law attorney in your state.