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Questions Over Common Law Marriage, Domestic Partnerships

The number of unmarried couples living together has dramatically increased since the 1970s with many people foregoing or delaying marriage. Yet some people have misconceptions about what living together means under the law.

Couples may think that as long as they live together as a couple for a certain amount of time, they will eventually gain the rights and benefits of married people and that they will have those same rights if the relationship ends. That is not the case, however, because many states - Massachusetts included - no longer recognize common-law marriages.

Common-law marriage dates back to a time when it wasn't easy or feasible for every couple to get to a court or other authority that could legally perform a marriage. Nowadays, the majority of states generally feel that this is no longer an issue, and find that a documented union is much more manageable from a legal perspective. Unfortunately, couples in common-law marriages may have the misconception that they can walk away from their union without the concerns that official couples have, which is not the case. Disputes over property and debt, income and other matters when a common-law marriage ends are just as complicated, if not more so, as in ending a traditional marriage.

Domestic partnerships also present problems in that one state may not recognize a domestic partnership granted in another state, particularly if the states have different laws concerning same-sex partnerships. Further complicating this scenario is what happens when a domestic partnership ends, and one or both partners move to other states; an ex domestic partner cannot dissolve a relationship in a state that doesn't recognize it in the first place. This can lead to a quagmire where an individual's legal status as single, domestic partnered or divorced may depend more on geography than anything else.

Couples can create cohabitation agreements which provide for division of responsibilities or division of property if the relationship ends. These can exist for same sex couples as well as heterosexual couples in some states. There are states, however, that do not explicitly allow for any kind of agreement between cohabitating couples, but it is still a good idea for couples in those states to hire an attorney to draft a contract that may be enforceable in a court of law.

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