As the number of co-habiting couples skyrockets, a new legal problem has come to the fore: What to do when the couples split up? From an article in the Washington Post:
A study by the Pew Research Center found that 39 percent of Americans think marriage is becoming obsolete. But it still takes a marriage (or some other legally binding agreement) to get a divorce. And as the number of couples choosing to live together rather than marry has increased drastically, so have the spats over their splits. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that almost half of its 1,600 members are seeing an increase in court battles between cohabiting couples. Nearly 40 percent of those lawyers said they’ve seen an increase in demand for cohabitation agreements — the equivalent of a prenup, sans wedding ring.
“It’s pretty heartbreaking,” Luxenberg says. “People don’t have rights unless they have the title — their name is on a piece of property or a bank account or something like that.”
Luxenberg recalls one client who lived with her partner for 20 years. They’d had a child and built a home together. The woman’s income was about $50,000, Luxenberg says, and her boyfriend’s was “six or seven times that.” When the couple split, the woman hired Luxenberg to see what recourse she had. The answer: not much.
There would be child support, “but she didn’t get any of his pension benefits or any of his profit sharing. And she wasn’t going to get alimony,” Luxenberg says. “I don’t think people think about those kinds of issues.” . . .
A recent census report found that 7.5 million heterosexual couples lived together in 2010, up 13 percent from 2009. The report suggests that some of the shift may be attributed to the economy — more couples than in the previous year reported at least one party being unemployed. (An Onion TV headline put it this way: “Nation’s Girlfriends Unveil New Economic Plan: ‘Let’s Move In Together.’ ”)
The numbers have been climbing over the past decade as cohabitation has become more socially acceptable.
Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, an organization that promotes marriage, worries about the effect this has on children.
The good news, he says, is that divorces among parents with children have returned to levels not seen since the 1960s. Of couples who married in the early 1960s, 23 percent divorced before their first child turned 10. The rate peaked at slightly more than 27 percent in the late 1970s. By the mid-1990s, the rate dropped to just above 23 percent.
But a recent report Wilcox wrote, titled “Why Marriage Matters,” concludes that American families are less stable overall, in large part because couples are choosing cohabitation over marriage. Today, 24 percent of U.S. children are born to cohabiting couples, according to the report, and an additional 20 percent will live in a cohabiting household at some point in their childhood.
And 65 percent of children born to cohabiting parents will experience a parental breakup by the time they turn 12, compared with 24 percent of kids born to married parents.
“The more commitment people have to a relationship, typically the better they’ll do, the happier they are,” Wilson says.
This generation’s preference for cohabitation, he adds, may be a backlash against their parents’ propensity for divorce. But not getting married doesn’t protect couples who live together from heartache when the relationship falls apart.
The article goes on to give a number of sad stories. But isn’t the point of just living together instead of getting married so that no one gets “tied down”? Don’t a lot of people avoid getting married precisely so as to free themselves from the cost of divorce, alimony, sharing of assets, and the like? If a couple isn’t married, what claim can they possibly have on each other’s property? I don’t see how cohabiting couples have any grounds for complaining. Of course the relationship isn’t permanent. Of course you don’t have any kind of legal ties. I thought that was the point!
Maybe we could restore the time-honored option of common law marriage. If you live together for longer than a specified time, then you are married, whether you have a ceremony or whether you want to be or not, with all of the rights and responsibilities thereof!
HT: Frank Sonnek