In New Jersey, as in many parts of the United States, the concept of common law marriage is met with both interest and confusion. Common law marriage is a doctrine that exists in many states that recognizes couples as married, even without a marriage ceremony or license.Since common law marriage doesn't exist in New Jersey, it's crucial to understand your legal standing and the implications of cohabitation.
Working with a family law attorney at Ziegler Law Group, LLC will help you best understand your legal rights as an unwed couple, especially with matters of alimony and palimony.
What is Common Law Marriage?
Common law marriage, often associated with a specific number of years of cohabitation (generally 10 years) with a partner and behaving as if you were married, dictates that essentially, you are indeed married. In states where common law marriage is recognized, you do not need an official marriage license to be seen as married. However, New Jersey, Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Montana, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Texas, and South Carolina do not recognize common law marriage.
Prior to 1939, common law marriage did exist in New Jersey. Having been eliminated in 1939, couples in New Jersey must be officially married in order to claim certain rights and benefits.
What is Cohabitation?
In New Jersey, cohabitation is defined as “a mutually supportive, intimate personal relationship” where the actions of the couple resembles that of a civil union or marriage. Being that common law in NJ is not recognized, cohabitation is often used to describe the same situation.
Cohabitation does not afford you and your partner the same benefits as a civil union or marriage, meaning that you cannot receive tax breaks or medical care provisions. To share legal benefits, you and your partner must either be married, in a civil union, or domestic partnership. Opposite-sex couples over the age of 62 can enter into a domestic partnership, meaning that younger couples will have to legalize their union either as a marriage or civil union to receive legal benefits. Same-sex couples have a lower age requirement for domestic partnerships, but most have chosen same-sex marriage since its legalization in 2015.
What are The Legal Rights of Unmarried Couples?
In New Jersey, the legal distinctions between unwed and wedded couples are significant. As noted earlier, common law marriage is not applicable in New Jersey, meaning that there are disparities in the rights and benefits afforded to unmarried couples. One of the key areas where these differences manifest is in estate planning. Unmarried couples lack the same rights as married couples, such as inheritance rights, tax breaks on property transfer after death, and the ability to inherit a portion of their partner's estate.
This also means that cohabitating unwed couples cannot file taxes jointly or earn access to tax credits, including the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit. Furthermore, while married spouses can receive health benefits from their partner’s employer and also care for an ailing spouse, unwed couples can’t do the same. In cases of unfortunate circumstances, such as a partner's demise, an unmarried partner lacks claim to workers' compensation benefits, retirement benefits, or unpaid wages.
The Role of Agreements in Cohabitation
Although cohabitation does not provide you with the same legal protections as married couples in New Jersey, that does not mean there aren’t ways to secure your rights and interests. You can use legal cohabitation agreements drafted by an attorney like those at Ziegler Law Group, LLC to outline your rights and responsibilities while living together.
Cohabitation agreements can cover the following:
- Financial responsibilities, including rent or mortgage payments, groceries, and other household expenses.
- Property ownership, which will specify the ownership percentage of each partner and distribution of assets, should the relationship end.
- Debt management, should one or both partners have existing debt.
- Child custody and support, for when you have children together. A cohabitation agreement can outline custody arrangements, support obligations, and also a visitation schedule.
Cohabitation and Palimony
When it comes to the legal rights of unmarried couples in New Jersey, there's a unique concept known as "palimony" that plays a crucial role in ensuring financial support for long-term partners in the event of separation. Palimony may sound similar to alimony, but it has a few distinct differences. The essence of palimony lies in providing financial stability to a partner who contributed to the relationship's well-being, especially in cases where he or she may have made sacrifices or investments based on the expectation of future support.
Additionally, palimony cannot be ordered by a court to be paid; it must be outlined in a document. Prior to 2010, implied agreements could hold weight, but New Jersey Courts have since established the importance of explicit, written agreements for palimony to be enforceable. In other words, should this signed contract be absent, it is highly unlikely that a court would order a palimony claim.
How Does Cohabitation Affect Alimony?
Most often, references to cohabitation and common law in New Jersey are brought up during alimony cases, particularly when the parties involved are divorced. Cohabitation holds a significant influence on alimony arrangements, especially in situations where a recipient spouse enters a new relationship but avoids marriage to continue receiving spousal support. In New Jersey, the law has provisions to modify or terminate alimony if the recipient spouse is shown to be involved in a cohabitation relationship for a duration of at least three months.
However, should that cohabitation relationship come to an end, it is possible that the modified or terminated alimony may be reinstated. Should that happen, the original duration of the alimony will also be intact.
The Burden of Proof
If you are the current payor of alimony, the burden of proving the existence of your ex’s cohabitation is your responsibility. It's worth noting that cohabitation isn't solely defined by sharing a household full-time; it encompasses a range of factors that reflect a shared and interdependent life.
Evidence used to establish cohabitation can vary and may include:
- Joint financial accounts or holdings,
- Being recognized as a couple within social and familial circles,
- Sharing household responsibilities and financial obligations.
This evidence serves as a means to show the court that the recipient spouse is participating in a mutually supportive relationship akin to marriage.
Need to Learn More About NJ Laws For Unmarried Couples?
Common law in New Jersey is not a recognized institution. This can make the legal landscape for separating unmarried couples dramatically different from that of married couples. As such, it is paramount you understand your rights, responsibilities, and legal avenues so that your interests and well-being are safeguarded.
At Ziegler Law Group, LLC, we specialize in guiding individuals through the intricacies of relationships and the law. Whether you are navigating the complexities of marriage, cohabitation, divorce, or something in between, our dedicated team of family law attorneys is here to provide expert assistance. Contact Ziegler Law Group, LLC today by calling (973) 878-4373 or by sending us a message to schedule a consultation.
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