Is there a “Divorce” When You Were Never Married?

What Happens When an Unmarried Couple Splits Up?

Couples break up on a daily basis in New Jersey and throughout the country. Because marriage is not only a way to express romantic love and commitment but a package of legal obligations and rights as well, it is typically far more complicated to break up as a married couple than as an unmarried couple. However, there are circumstances in which there are legal aspects to any breakup, particularly if a couple owns property together or shares children with one another.

More People Are Choosing Unmarried Life

Fewer married couples are choosing to divorce in recent years, with the trend toward rising divorce rates of the past shifting back to a lower number. A record number of people in New Jersey and across the country have never married, with 35% of people between 25 and 50 in this demographic. In 1970, that portion of the population was only 9%. In addition, people who do marry are choosing to marry later in life. In the 1970s, the median age of marriage was in the early 20s for both women and men, while today, those numbers have risen to the late 20s or early 30s. In many ways, this may mean that people who do marry today are more certain about their choices and less likely to divorce.

With a growing acceptance of long-term unmarried relationships and living together without being married, more people have the opportunity to experience serious relationships without choosing to marry. The lack of legal ties and obligations is one benefit of such relationships, although people have a range of reasons why they prefer not to marry. In general, it is far less complicated to break up if you are not married. Because the legal bonds of marriage are not present, unmarried couples do not need divorce lawyers or a family court to end their relationship. They pack up their separate belongings and go their own way, without needing to work with a family law attorney to negotiate a marital settlement agreement.

However, this also means that some couples also choose to have children together without marriage. When children are involved and co-parenting and child support are part of the picture, parents may prefer to arrange a legal agreement for the sharing of custody, even if they maintain an amicable relationship after the breakup. While couples with shared children generally do not need to worry about property division as they would in a divorce, they do need to consider what frameworks they will put in place to care for their children.

Child Custody for Unmarried Couples

Unmarried couples do not need to go to family court to handle their agreements about child support and custody. However, even parents who decide not to go the legal route may benefit from making a formal agreement, with each party being represented by a family lawyer. While you don’t need a divorce attorney to break up, an experienced professional may help both parties to iron out potential disagreements and ensure that their mutual agreements are in line with New Jersey family law.

Broken Heart - Divorce Attorney NJOn the other hand, some unmarried couples may want or need to go to family court to handle their child support and custody agreements. Couples with a high level of conflict with one another who are unable to come to an agreement about how to divide their responsibilities for their children may pursue a custody order in family court, just as married parents do. Judges have the discretion to make decisions about child custody and visitation in the best interests of the child, although they often favor agreements reached by both parents. In many cases, negotiated agreements will be adopted by the court so long as they appear to be logical and achievable.

In many cases, both members of the couple are the legal parents of the child. Family courts tend to favor joint legal custody for shared children, even if the child spends more time living with one parent than another. This means that both parents have an equal say in decision-making about the child’s education, health care and upbringing. Physical custody is different and refers to the amount of time the child spends at each parent’s home. Depending on the parents’ schedules and their involvement in child care, they may share custody, or one parent may have primary physical custody with the other parent having visitation rights. For example, visitation often takes place on weekends. Unless there is a serious record of abuse or neglect, both parents should expect to have a high level of involvement in their child’s life, whether they share joint custody or another form of child care responsibilities.

Child Support for Unmarried Couples

New Jersey requires both legal parents to support their children, regardless of their marital status. A family lawyer can work with separating parents to set up child support agreements or awards. It is often important to formalize such child support agreements, especially if one parent’s financial circumstances later change or the child needs to access government services. If the parents have a conflict with one another, unofficial child support payments can be more difficult to prove or verify.

New Jersey child support is typically determined according to guidelines based on the parents’ income, expenses and responsibility for the child’s bills. If an unmarried parent does not pay child support that has been ordered by a judge, the custodial parent can pursue their right to child support through the courts. This is another reason, along with the verifiability of official child support payments, that couples with higher levels of conflict may benefit from working with a family or divorce lawyer through the court system.

When only one parent is a legal parent, the situation is different. If the other partner is the genetic parent of the child, or if the child was conceived mutually through fertility assistance, they may be able to seek legal parenthood and the rights and responsibilities that accompany it through the New Jersey family courts. It may also be possible to work with the other parent and a family law attorney to negotiate an agreement to stay in the child’s life, especially if a non-legal parent has played an important role in caring for the child.

Nonlegal parents typically do not have child support obligations to the child; similarly, they also do not have a right to seek custody or visitation in the court, absent special or unique circumstances.

Property Division for Unmarried Couples

In general, unmarried couples in New Jersey do not have a claim to each other’s property. They must divide up their separate property between themselves, and each party keeps their own bank accounts, debts, retirement accounts and other assets and liabilities. For property owned jointly, the division of their property is accomplished like that of any joint owners, who must arrange for one party to buy out the other or make a plan for its sale or distribution. One party may be able to pursue the other for property issues under standard contract or property law, even though their disputes will not be managed in a family court.

A family law attorney can provide important advice for any breakup, even for unmarried couples and especially if children are involved. Contact the experienced New Jersey divorce attorneys at Lawrence Law by calling 908-645-1000 or submitting our convenient, online contact form for a consultation at our Watchung or Red Bank, New Jersey, office.

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