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Some states recognize common law marriage, in which people who have been living with their significant others for extended periods of time become automatically married and experience the same responsibilities and rights as legally married couples. Roughly a dozen states recognize common law marriage and the remaining states do not, regardless of how many years partners have lived together. In cases where a state does not recognize common law marriage, there is still support in place for unmarried couples, known as palimony.

Palimony refers to the spousal support unmarried couples may receive after the end of a long-lasting relationship. This financial support aims to safeguard couples that have been living together for extended periods of time and who have begun to substantially rely on each other for financial support. Just as alimony is rewarded to married couples after a divorce or separation and aims to assist the partners’ transition from married life to social and financial independence, palimony can also be rewarded to help unmarried couples with the transition after a relationship.

While palimony proves useful in helping long-lasting partners adjust to life after their relationship, it is often only granted in very limited circumstances in court. Palimony is often considered for couples or individual partners who reasonably believe they are married. In some cases, marriage paperwork may have not been filed properly due to clerical error, or one spouse had defrauded the other. As a result, courts may recognize that the partners reasonably thought they shared financial rights and obligations. It would then be unfair for the partners to go without the rights they believed they would enjoy upon separating. Courts could classify partners that requested financial support as putative spouses, extending limited rights to them.

Some couples who remain aware they are not married may have entered private agreements with their partner. Through this establishment, whether written or oral, the partners may believe there is a mutual understanding that their assets will be shared between the two. As couples who remain in long-term relationships may be under the impression they contribute and share the relationship equally, these understandings may be implied. In cases such as these, courts will review the situation individually, exploring the length of the relationship, whether there is proof of certain arrangements, and whether a couple or partner’s conduct demonstrates the agreement.

Couples seeking to avoid legal complications in their relationship should consider a cohabitation agreement. Similar to a prenuptial agreement, a cohabitation agreement will establish a contract in which the unmarried couple will discuss the outcome of a separation or other complication further down the road. Having an experienced attorney help draft the agreement helps couples develop strategies to avoid legal ambiguity.

Carin Maxey’s blog posts are not legal advice and are meant for informational purposes only. If you require legal advice, please seek a licensed professional in your jurisdiction.