Unmarried couples in a long-term relationship likely have many of the same shared dreams, goals, and possessions as married couples, but are left without the same legal protections if they separate. A separation of an unmarried couple raises many of the same types of issues spouses face in a divorce, and in some cases they can be even more complicated.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey have laws dictating property division, child custody, alimony, and other considerations, but most of these divorce laws do not apply to unmarried couples. Discuss your situation with an attorney from Petrelli Law before making any decisions.
What must we consider when separating after a long-term relationship?
During divorce proceedings, the married couple typically addresses several aspects important to the dissolution of their marriage, such as property division or child custody. But because an unmarried couple is not getting divorced, they will have to address these issues outside of the usual divorce process.
So if you are unmarried and splitting from a long-time partner, consider these common issues:
- Who gets the house and other assets?
- Who gets custody of the children?
- Who pays child support?
- Are we married under common law?
- What happens to the house and other assets?
In a lot of these cases involving unmarried couples, only one partner is on the deed of the home, but the other partner pays a portion (often half) of the mortgage. In cases like this, the partner on the deed may reimburse the other for mortgage payments, or the partner not on the deed may seek a partition to exercise a right to be reimbursed by the partner on the deed.
If both partners are on the deed, then they may seek a partition agreement or proceeding to decide how to split the asset. There are several options how to split the home. This includes:
- One partner remains in the home and trades property of the same value
- One partner remains in the home and buys the other out of her portion
- The couple sells the home and splits the profits
If you are planning to sell the house, you will need to determine how to share the proceeds. If one person paid the down payment or made payments before the other partner moved in, that person may get more than a 50 percent share. The same may be true if only one partner contributed to mortgage payments.
Other property division considerations include:
- Joint bank accounts
- Other financial accounts
- Artwork and other valuable collections
While an agreement between you and your former partner is the best bet, a partition proceeding is possible if you cannot reach a fair agreement. To do this, you must file a lawsuit against your former partner and schedule a hearing before a judge who will decide how to split the property based on the facts of the case.
Who gets custody of the children and who pays child support?
Pennsylvania law treats child custody similarly for married and unmarried couples: they act in the child’s best interests.
However, couples in a divorce must always formally address child custody, support, and visitation as a part of their divorce settlement, while unmarried couples may attempt to use only informal custody agreements instead. While these agreements do work for some couples, it is preferable to put the agreement in writing.
In the absence of a written agreement, you will have to go to the courts if a disagreement arises. In such cases, the judge will decide the matter for you, keeping the child’s best interests in mind.
Further, parents can seek child support from the other, which the court may award in a similar fashion as in cases of married parents who get divorced.
A common concern in cases of unmarried parents is establishing paternity. Fathers benefit from establishing their paternity because it provides them legal rights to seek custody and visitation with the child. Mothers benefit because it allows them to seek child support from the father.
Are we married under common law?
The legislature abolished common law marriage in Pennsylvania after January 1, 2005, although the state still recognizes partnerships that met the state’s qualifications prior to this date.
Under the previous Pennsylvania law, common law marriage required partners to:
- Both be age 18 or older
- Be of the opposite sex
- Be eligible to get married (not married to other people)
- Exchange vows stating a “present intent to enter into marriage”
If you and your partner entered into a common law marriage in Pennsylvania, the process of separating property during a split is somewhat easier. Partners who are married under common law have the same rights to joint property and investments as other married couples.
New Jersey does not recognize any common law marriage, and has not since the state abolished the concept in 1939.
Do I need a lawyer?
If you have no joint property and no children, you may not have any legal matters to address when separating from a long-term partner. But if you have property or children and you are in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, then talk to a lawyer at Petrelli Law about your rights during and after your separation.
We can help you negotiate a fair agreement or head to court with a partition proceeding, child custody issues, or seek fair child support orders. Contact us today at 215-523-6900 to learn more about how we can help you.