Division of assets and property when unmarried couples split

Photo of attorney Melinda L. Singer

Common law marriages are not legal in New Jersey, although many couples in long-term relationships choose not to get married. These relationships can work well, but if unmarried couples split after years of acquiring assets and having children together, the division of assets and property could be a challenging process. There are no rules or legal requirements for ending a cohabitation arrangement, making it less costly and time-consuming — but not always less traumatic. Contention may arise because of the lack of laws to govern the fair division of property.

Couples in cohabitation relationships do not have any obligations when it comes to supporting each other after splitting, and that could bring hardship if one partner became used to being supported by the other. One way to prevent that is for the couple to draft a cohabitation agreement. Another disadvantage of not tying the knot is the fact that, absent a formal authoritzation, one partner will have no rights to make decisions on behalf of the other partner in the event of an illness or if he or she becomes debilitated. Such matters will be the responsibility of the the individual’s immediate family members.

Furthermore, medical decisions and even parenting time in cases in which only the family is allowed might be denied for a cohabitating partner, regardless of how close they were or how long they have been together. In the event of one partner dying without explicitly naming the other partner in a will, only the deceased person’s family will be entitled to his or her estate. There will also be no presumption of paternity when unmarried couples have children, and blood tests may be required along with legal action to lawfully establish paternity.

For New Jersey couples who choose to remain unmarried, it is not all bad news. They can overcome most of these obstacles by having an experienced family law attorney to draft a cohabitation contract. Such an agreement can deal with the division of assets and property in the event of a breakup, and making sure each partner has a valid will is also recommended. When living together becomes a permanent arrangement, the sensible step would be to seek legal counsel to explain potential problems and the best way in which to mitigate them.

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