Unmarried Couples & Family Law

It is no secret that the Millennials (generation of adults between the ages of 23 and 39) are either greatly delaying marriage or forgoing marriage altogether. In fact, according to Pew Research Center (assessing social and demographic trends), more than half of the Millennials in relationships are unmarried. This recent trend suggests that Millennials in relationships are satisfied with simply living together. But what happens when those relationships end? Unbeknownst to many people, the result of unmarried couples breaking up may have some serious financial consequences.  

The laws affecting unmarried couples have changed over the course of time. Before 2010, New Jersey courts recognized the right of an unmarried individual, in a relationship akin to marriage, to seek financial support from his or her significant other upon the dissolution of the relationship. This claim is called “palimony” and is based on a promise by one party to support the other party for life. In most cases, the promise for support is made in exchange for services rendered by the other party, including but not limited to,  providing emotional support; taking care of the household; caring for children; or some other service performed for the benefit of the relationship.  In 2010, New Jersey enacted a new law that requires all promises for support between unmarried cohabitants be in writing and reviewed by independent counsel for both parties. This means that strictly verbal promises for support between unmarried couples are unenforceable if the oral promise was made after 2010. 

Notwithstanding the change in the law, unmarried couples residing together who decide to terminate their relationship may seek other equitable financial relief from the Court, even without a written document. In a recently published decision rendered by Judge Acquaviva in Monmouth County, C.N. v. S.R., the trial court determined that a boyfriend’s partition claim (claim to divide real property) with regard to the home in which the former couple resided was a viable claim despite the fact that there was no writing between the parties addressing the division of this asset. The unmarried couple purchased a home together in which the deed and mortgage were titled solely in the girlfriend’s name and the girlfriend paid the majority of the mortgage payments during the course of the seven year relationship.  The boyfriend, however, was heavily involved in the purchase of the home including, but not limited to selecting and communicating with the realtor, providing $10,000.00 of the $15,000.00 down payment, selecting and paying the inspector, choosing the closing attorney, and negotiating a $10,000.00 seller’s concession. 

During their relationship, the boyfriend also paid the vast majority of the home’s utilities and even paid a lawyer to appeal a tax assessment on the home. Notwithstanding that the home was solely titled in the girlfriend’s name and the parties were never married, the trial court determined that the boyfriend’s financial and physical responsibilities in connection with the household clearly demonstrated mutual control and ownership of the home and that the principles of equity and fairness demanded that relief be granted in the boyfriend’s favor with regard to his partition claim.  

Suffice it to say, uncoupling is never easy, even when couples are unmarried. Depending upon the facts and circumstances of the case, the issue of dividing property between unmarried couples can be a complex issue for which the advice of family law counsel may be necessary. 

By: Victoria Paone Rosa, Esq. 

* (Editor’s note: Victoria Paone Rosa, Esq. is an associate at the Law Offices of Paone, Zaleski & Murphy working out of the firm’s Red Bank office, located at 120 Maple Avenue. Victoria’s professional history includes clerking in Monmouth County for the Honorable Mara E. Zazzali-Hogan for both the Family Part, Chancery Division and Civil Division for 2016-2017. She is currently a member of the New Jersey State Bar, Middlesex Bar Association, Monmouth Bar Association, Monmouth County Legal Aid Society and Aldona E. Appleton Family Law Inn of Court. Victoria limits her practice to divorce, child support, child custody, equitable distribution, alimony, domestic violence, alimony, palimony and all other family law issues. Ms. Paone was selected by the Middlesex County Bar Association to receive the 2020 Young Lawyer of the Year Award. Her monthly column, “Divorce Hotline,” will serve to inform readers as to family law news, advice as to the divorce process, comment on recently published family law cases and more. Paone, Zaleski & Murphy can be contacted at 732-750-9797.)