Community Property Rights in California for Unmarried Couples

According to statistics published by the Pew Research Center, nearly 60 percent of adults 18 to 44 have lived with a partner without being married. Reviewing the statistics as they pertain to younger generations, more are opting to live with partners outside of marriage which has become more acceptable over the past few decades. While the percentages of adult who have lived together is still quite low, around seven percent, this still means there are concerns about property rights for many people.

Common Law Marriage: No Longer the “Rule”

Colorado, District of Columbia, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas (calls it “informal marriage”), and Utah all fully recognize common law marriage. Other states including Georgia, Idaho, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have specific “cut-off” dates on when the couple began their live-in relationship. California, however, does not recognize common law marriages in any form, which means community property division rights are not recognized. All other states, some of which had previously established legally recognized common law marriages, have abolished them.

Exceptions to Community Property Rights for Unmarried Couples

As with many legal questions, there are exceptions to community property in California, even when a couple is not married. Some of these include:

  • Jointly held credit accounts — even after a breakup is finalized between couples who are living together, any joint accounts where both parties signed for the debt leaves both parties responsible for such debt.
  • Jointly held real estate — if the parties purchase real estate, or other real property, during the time they are living together, assuming the property ownership documents reflect both names, then both parties are considered owners. The parties would have to agree on how to divide such property.
  • Cohabitation Property Agreements — these agreements are similar in nature to a pre or postnuptial agreement with the exception they are not made between a couple who is contemplating marriage, or already married. These agreements can be extremely beneficial to both parties.

Financial Support After Living Together

There may be specific instances where one partner in a non-marital relationship seeks financial support following a breakup. This support is known by the non-legal term of “palimony” which in effect means non-marital partner support. While one partner may be financially responsible to provide for any child or children born during the relationship through the payment of child support, non-spouse financial support is much more difficult to obtain in California.

Some people will recall the legal case Marvin v. Marvin. This case made the argument that unmarried partners may receive the equivalent of spousal support in the event the relationship ends. However, that does not necessarily mean such financial support is automatic, nor is it necessary easy to prove it is warranted. In general, financial support of a non-spouse after a long-term live-in relationship ends involves filing a lawsuit claiming the right to support. The courts will look at the same data they would review in the event a spouse was seeking alimony following a divorce including:

  • Assets and income of both partners
  • Marketable skills of the person requesting support
  • Whether the person required to pay can afford to pay
  • What standard of living the parties enjoyed as a couple
  • How long the relationship lasted
  • Whether the person requesting support helped support the other’s career or education
  • The age and health of the involved parties

Keep in mind, there is no absolute right to financial support for a non-spouse partner in California. However, if you believe you may have a case for non-marital support, it is best to speak with a family law attorney who can help you determine if you may have a case for filing a request for support.

Why Cohabiting Agreements Make Sense

Like a pre or postnuptial agreement, many couples are reluctant to enter into any agreement pertaining to finances as they feel it is a signal their relationship will not last. However, this type of agreement can be especially helpful for couples who are living together without the benefit of marriage for numerous reasons.

When couples live together, chances are they are both bringing certain assets into the relationship. To ensure the assets remain their sole possessions in the event the relationship deteriorates, it is helpful to have a document which describes such property. These types of agreements can help ensure your personal property remains your own.

Additionally, a cohabitation agreement can be helpful for long-term relationships even when the partners do not decide to separate later. For example, if a couple moves in together and they are together for numerous years, and one dies, the remaining partner has no rights as far as the estate of the other partner unless one of two situations exist (a) there is an agreement which the partners entered into or (b) the deceased partner’s will specifically bequeaths property to the surviving partner.

Family Law or Estate Planning Firm

When you are involved in a long-term relationship without the legal benefits of marriage, you and your partner should discuss how you wish to deal with financial matters in the event one of you loses your life or if the relationship should deteriorate. This is simply a smart thing to do and a step that protects both parties.

Many of the issues you will face, which are similar to those issues faced by married couples, including financial support and property division in the event of a breakup can, and should, be resolved prior to the deterioration of a relationship.  This process will protect both partners in a long-term relationship.

If you are entering into a relationship with another person, and you are interested in learning about the ways you can protect yourself either through the use of a cohabitation agreement, or by an estate plan, you should take the time to learn what protections can be obtained under California law. You can learn more about your options by contacting The Law Offices of Steven M. Bishop at (619) 299-9780 and setting up an appointment with an attorney who can help you understand your options. For more than four decades, Attorney Bishop has been committed to helping area residents with some of the most complex legal issues they are facing regarding family law and estate planning.

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