Divorce When You’re Not Legally Married

The process is typically easier, but you can still end up in court

A steady decline in divorce rates over the past two decades suggests that marriages are more stable today. Still, at the same time, a record number of people in the United States have never been married, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data from the Pew Research Center. In 2019, 33% of Americans ages 25 to 54 had never tied the knot. In 1970, for those between the ages of 25 to 50, the share was just 9%.

Also, research shows that marriage rates tend to drop during recessions. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the percentage of never-married adults is likely to break new records.

What’s behind these trends? For starters, young adults are taking longer to get married. The median age for first-time marriages is 28 for women and 30 for men. By comparison, couples typically got married in their early 20s in the 1970s. What’s more, many couples today live together before—or instead of—marriage, due in part to changing societal views on marriage and co-habitation.

Of course, relationships don’t always work out, and partners who aren’t legally married can break up just like married couples do. When that happens, the process is typically easier than it is for married couples going through a divorce—especially if the partners agree on plans for the children (if they have children) and how to divvy up the assets. Still, you and your ex can end up in court if you can’t resolve your dispute amicably.

Here’s how splitting up works when you’re not legally married.

Key Takeaways

  • When unmarried partners break up, the division of property works differently than it does for married couples.
  • If you’re not married, then you generally keep what you came into the relationship with and anything that you earned or bought on your own during your time together.
  • Unmarried partners are not usually entitled to alimony after a breakup.
  • Nonlegal parents don’t usually have any custody or visitation rights, nor do they have a duty to support a child following a breakup.

Property Rights of Unmarried Couples

When marriage ends in divorce, you get to keep the personal belongings that you came into the marriage with, plus your fair share of the marital property—everything that you acquired together during the marriage.

When unmarried couples split, the division of property works differently. You can still keep the items that you came into the relationship with, along with anything that you earned or bought while you and your partner were together. However, if you’ve deliberately combined your assets—say, by putting both names on the deed to your house—then that property is jointly owned in equal 50-50 shares. An exception may apply if one partner can clearly prove that they made a larger contribution.

Alimony for Unmarried Couples

If one spouse earns significantly more than the other in a marriage—or if one is financially dependent on the other—a judge can order the higher earner to pay spousal support (aka “alimony”) after divorce. It’s not the same for unmarried couples. Neither partner is entitled to alimony after a breakup unless there is proof of an agreement to provide post-separation support (aka “palimony”).

Custody, Visitation, and Child Support

Whether or not you’re legally married, a breakup can be infinitely more complicated (and painful) when children are involved. If you and your partner are both legal parents and jointly raising children, you may be able to settle on a joint agreement without court intervention. However, if you can’t agree and end up in court, then custody, visitation, and child support matters will be handled the same way as for married couples who divorce. However, if only one partner is the legal parent, then the nonlegal parent has no custody or visitation rights—and no duty to support the child.

Common-law marriages extend many of the same benefits of marriage, but they are not recognized in many states.

Common-Law Marriage

Marriage is a legal union between two people. To be validly married in most states, a couple must buy a marriage license and have the marriage solemnized by a ceremony. Still, a few states recognize common-law marriage, which extends many of the same benefits as marriage without the license or ceremony.

Keep in mind that each state that recognizes common-law marriage has specific requirements. However, you must generally “hold yourself out to be married” by using the same last name, filing joint income tax returns, or referring publicly to each other as spouses.

Map of the United States, with common-law marriage states identified

The laws that govern married couples who divorce don’t typically apply to unmarried couples. One exception is if the partners live in a state that recognizes common-law marriage. In these cases, the property is divided under the state’s rules as if the couple were formally married.


The number of states (Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey) that still allow couples to initiate new civil unions.

Civil Unions

A civil union (sometimes called a “domestic partnership”) is not a marriage or a common-law marriage. Instead, it is a legal relationship between two partners that can confer rights at the state level, with no federal protections or benefits. Though created to allow same-sex couples to legalize their relationships, it is also available to heterosexual couples in lieu of marriage. However, some states stopped offering civil unions when same-sex marriage became legal.

Today, only four states—Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey—allow couples to initiate new civil unions. Vermont still recognizes older civil unions, but it maintains separate procedures for divorce and civil-union dissolution.

Civil unions are not portable, which means they may not be valid when couples cross state lines. In most cases, you must file to terminate a civil union in the issuing state, and at least one partner must be a current resident. If you meet these requirements, the dissolution generally follows the same procedure as divorce.

It can be tricky to dissolve civil unions in states that don’t recognize them. In these cases, the partners may need to consult a local attorney to see if the civil union is recognized and determine the procedure to dissolve a civil union formed in a different state.

Living-Together Agreements

Living together as unmarried partners does not create a contractual relationship as it does for legally married couples. Still, as unmarried couples generally share finances and responsibilities, it’s a good idea to have a living-together contract or co-habitation agreement.

These legally-binding contracts outline expectations about property, assets, and finances. This can be a helpful way for couples to share intentions going into and throughout the relationship and protect each partner if the relationship ends.


Do You Get Divorced If You Break Up and Are Not Married?

No. Unmarried couples do not go through divorce like married couples do if they split. As long as unmarried partners can agree on how to divvy up any assets, there’s generally no need for lawyers or courts.

Who Gets the House When an Unmarried Couple Breaks Up?

The answer depends on who is listed on the deed. If only one person is listed, then the other has no claim to the home. However, if the deed lists both names, then the property is considered jointly owned.

Do You Have Any Property Rights If You Are Not Married?

Each partner generally keeps whatever property they brought into the relationship, along with anything that they earned or bought during the relationship. Jointly owned assets, however, are typically split 50-50.

The Bottom Line

These days, it’s more common for romantic partners to live together before—or as an alternative to—marriage. However, when unmarried duos go their separate ways, the process works differently than it does for legally married couples.

If you and your ex agree on how to divide the assets, you probably won’t need to involve lawyers or the court system. If you can’t agree, however, then the property aspects of your split will likely be handled by the ordinary business section of your state’s civil courts. Disputes about child custody or support are generally handled by the family law division of your local court.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. "Provisional Number of Divorces and Annulments and Rate: United States, 2000-2020," Page 2.

  2. Pew Research Center. "Rising Share of U.S. Adults Are Living Without a Spouse or Partner."

  3. Institute for Family Studies. “The Share of Never-Married Americans Has Reached a New High.”

  4. United States Census Bureau. "Median Age at First Marriage: 1890 to Present."

  5. Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. "Marital Property."

  6. Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. "Joint Tenancy."

  7. Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. "Tenancy in Common."

  8. Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. "Alimony."

  9. Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. "Palimony."

  10. Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. "Child Custody: An Overview."

  11. Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. "Parent."

  12. National Conference of State Legislatures. "Common Law Marriage by State."

  13. American Bar Association. "What Constitutes a Valid Marriage?"

  14. U.S. Department of Labor. "Common-Law Marriage Handbook," Pages 15-19, 30.

  15. Internal Revenue Service. "25.18.1 Basic Principles of Community Property Law."

  16. National Conference of State Legislatures. "Civil Unions and Domestic Partnership Statutes."

  17. Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. "Civil Union Partners."

  18. Vermont General Assembly. "Title 15: Domestic Relations: Chapter 23: Civil Unions § 1206. Dissolution of Civil Unions."

  19. LegalMatch. “Dissolving a Civil Union.”

  20. Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP. "FAQs - Cohabitation Agreements."

  21. American Bar Association. "Residential Real Estate FAQs," Select "Manner in Which Title Is Taken and Held."

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