My relationship of 20 years is ending, but we were never married. What are my rights?

Divorce couple

Since the couple was never married.  It can be devastating to a person to look back at all the years they put into building a home and possibly a family and think they could end up with nothing.  The laws of marriage and divorce won’t help you, but that does not mean you have no rights either.

When it comes to children, there is very little difference in outcome between a married and unmarried situation.  The family court will still need to make a ruling on custody and that will be according to the best interests of the child.

Property division, however, will be quite different.  Rather than a presumption of all property being split evenly, the property will be divided depending on the type of property it is.

Real property:  If you purchased your home together, real property law will govern the situation.  Even if you are not married, you most likely have what is known as a joint tenancy with the right of survivorship.  This means that you each own a one-half interest in the property.

But what if you don’t have this kind of deed?  What if the house was purchased in the name of the other party?  The house will stay with the person whose name is on the deed, but if your efforts went into to paying the mortgage and the upkeep of the house, there are sometimes legitimate cases under an unjust enrichment theory for some kind of compensation.  This is a fact-intensive inquiry, and I would suggest consulting with a lawyer in your area if you think you are owed something for contributing to a house.

Autos:  Cars are the other type of property that are titled.  Therefore, look at who is on the title to see where the car will likely end up.  Most couples have two cars and designate one car for each, so this is usually not an issue.  Unless one party paid for the entire car, or a large majority of it, there typically isn’t a lot that can be done to overcome the presumption of the title.

In any situation where the division of property is not clear, the law provides some opportunity to divide property equitably even if the couple was never married under theories of contract and quasi-contract. It is a good idea to consult with a lawyer if you are planning on ending your relationship, but don’t have a marriage license.