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Rights of Unmarried Couples When the Relationship Ends

In New Jersey, divorces of married couples and civil union couples are subject to certain financial rights and obligations that unmarried couples do not acquire, even if they lived together and supported each other in a long-term relationship.  Traditional divorce law regarding alimony and distribution of assets do not apply to unmarried couples. For example, New Jersey law says that married people have an obligation to support each other, so a supported spouse can seek alimony upon divorce.  For unmarried couples, there is no right to alimony.

As an alternative to alimony, someone who has been in a non-marital relationship may request “palimony” from his or her partner when their relationship comes to an end.  This is possible if, and only if, there was a clear agreement that one party would pay palimony.  To be enforceable, that agreement must be in writing, it must be signed by the person who would pay the support, and it must have been entered into with each party having had independent legal advice.

Another significant difference in how the law treats married vs. non-married couples involves the sharing of assets and debts.  Divorce law allows for “equitable distribution” of property acquired by either or both parties during the marriage.  While there are exceptions to this (such as inheritance or gifts to only one party that are not comingled with other assets), even if only one party works, earns money and acquires significant savings, those savings are considered marital property and each party will be entitled to a portion.  This is true even for assets held solely in the name of one of the spouses.  Similarly, if one party incurred bills for services or goods such as health care, groceries, clothing and ordinary expenses, those bills are considered marital debt, for which both spouses may have to share some responsibility, even though the debt may be in only one party’s name.

For unmarried couples, equitable distribution is not an option.  They are not entitled to a share of each other’s savings, real estate or other assets unless these are held jointly in both parties’ names, or both parties contributed to the cost to acquire them.  Unmarried couples also do not share responsibility for each other’s separate debts.  This does not mean that unmarried couples never share assets or liabilities.  When two people own property together or both contributed funds to acquire an asset, they are each entitled to an interest in it.  The extent of their interests depends on how they take title to the property (for example, ownership of a house or a car), or how they each contributed to the cost (for example, furniture they buy together).

Unless couples keep good records, this can be very difficult to figure out years later when they separate.  An unmarried couple should consider addressing these issues early in the relationship to avoid uncertainty and conflict in the future. It may make sense to consult with a family law attorney about entering into a palimony agreement or a cohabitation agreement that spells out what each party’s rights and obligations if they later part ways.

(Note: This article does not address child custody and parenting time, which are not determined based on marital status).

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