When Unmarried Partners Break Up
According to census data, in 1990, nearly 100,000 households in New Jersey consisted of unmarried couples who shared their domestic lives. By 2010, that number had risen by 40 percent, and since then, it’s continued to rise at a rapid rate. Although an ever-increasing number of people in the Garden State are choosing to set up households together without first obtaining marriage licenses, New Jersey law does not give unmarried cohabitants the same rights as married cohabitants. This means things can get pretty complicated if those households break up.
If you or a loved one has recently ended a long-term, live-in relationship, it’s important to consult with the best family lawyer you can find, particularly if you own assets in common with your former partner. An experienced attorney may be able to identify remedies that will help you protect your parental, financial and property rights even though you can’t take advantage of the protections ensured by the legal mechanism of marriage.
Common-Law Marriage in New Jersey
Until 1939, partnerships between couples who lived together as man and wife were considered to be the equivalent of married relationships under New Jersey law. Then the state revised its Title 37 statutes and abolished common law marriage. This meant that upon the dissolution of such relationships, codified divorce protocols and the protections embedded in them no longer applied to such matters as property rights and partner support.
Unmarried Couples and Property Rights
In most instances, upon the dissolution of a live-in relationship, the state of New Jersey presumes that each unmarried partner owns his or her own assets and is responsible for his or her own debts. In the absence of a written contract, it can be extremely difficult to prove otherwise. Exceptions may be argued if two partners have deliberately combined their assets, by opening a joint checking account or by putting both names on the deed to a piece of property, for example.
If it can be established to the satisfaction of the court that a separating couple’s assets are jointly owned, the court will generally divvy them on a 50/50 basis unless one partner can provide written proof that he or she made a greater contribution to their acquisition. Such a dispute will likely be handled in the business division of the local civil court rather than in a family court.
There are no statutes under New Jersey law that permit unmarried partners to seek the equivalent of spousal support known as “palimony” when a live-in relationship ends. There may be contractual remedies under common law, however. The 1979 case Kozlowski v. Kozlowski (80 N.J. 378) established that unmarried cohabitants can obtain palimony from a former partner under certain circumstances. The 1982 case Crowe v. DeGioia (90 N.J. 126) established that unmarried cohabitants can obtain temporary financial support from a former partner upon the termination of a relationship under certain circumstances.
The New Jersey Supreme Court has also upheld that agreements of support between cohabitants are enforceable against an estate under certain circumstances if one of the cohabitants dies.
Prior to 1998, courts in these matters often based their decisions on legal doctrines that lay far outside the parameters of family law such as implied contract, partnership or quantum meruit. In 1998, however, the Supreme Court approved a new set of rules that provided that all family matters, including petitions for support involving unmarried cohabitants, would henceforth be decided in the Family Division of the Chancery Court. Decisions handed down, however, would rely on the rules formulated to address civil actions generally rather than the rules formulated to address family matters specifically.
Living Together Agreements
No matter how much you love someone at the beginning of your relationship, realistically, there’s a chance that the relationship may not last. This is why an increasing number of unmarried couples are putting into place Living Together Agreements, which anticipate problems the couple may encounter should the couple break up. The best family lawyer is one who can help you and your partner plan for this contingency. Contact the Law Office of Kelly Berton Rocco in Hackensack, New Jersey, today at (201) 343-0078 for more information.