How Separation Differs for Married and Unmarried Couples

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Despite more couples being involved in long-term relationships (typically with children, as well) than ever before, there are still a number of misunderstandings concerning the legal obligations for married and unmarried couples, upon separation.

Regardless of whether the relationship has borne children or not, there are quite a number of differences for separating married and unmarried couples, where family law is concerned. This is irrespective of the duration of the unmarried relationship or how they happened to manage their financial affairs during that time. As a result, couples who are unmarried can be at a distinct loss when they decide to separate. This is especially the case when one member has shouldered the majority or all of the financial responsibilities during the relationship, while the other’s offering has been through other, non-quantifiable means, such as time spent raising children.

The biggest differences

Married Couples

The biggest difference concerns the couple’s obligations to provide financial aid for one another, upon separating. For married couples, there is a responsibility to split the assets using clearly defined processes pertaining to separation that place a heavy emphasis on catering to the requirements of each partner and their children. Family assets are also partitioned with respect to achieving the most favourable outcome for future needs.

For the most part, each partner’s rightful ownership of a particular asset becomes irrelevant at the time of separation and regardless of whether it was considered to be jointly owned during the marriage, it essentially becomes property of all concerned members. Special family courts have been devised for the specific purpose of supervising and authorising asset distribution among parties.

Unmarried Couples

For unmarried couples, there is no legal obligation whatsoever for one partner to provide financial assistance for the other upon separation, no matter how long the relationship lasted or how the couple’s assets and financial affairs were arranged during that time. Applications for monetary aid to satisfy the requirements of the couple’s children can be done so by filing a statutory claim in the civil courts or a child support service to help assist with essential needs such as school related fees, medical expenses and shelter. In cases where the unmarried relationship has borne children, assets may change hands from one partner to the other to help cover these requirements. It should be noted however, that any such arrangement is typically not permanent and may only be enforced for as long as is required.

For any additional claims, such as that of a partner’s rightfully owned assets, including the family residence or company, there is the possibility for the argument to be made that both partners made significant contributions to the maintenance and prosperity of the assets and therefore at least some of the property’s value should be endowed upon the non-owner. It must be pointed out however, that such applications for part ownership are generally very expensive and in no way guarantee a successful outcome.

Preparing for separation

Most of the drawbacks that affect unmarried couples are able to be averted with some thoughtful preparation and by legally defining the various facets of your relationship by drafting the necessary written legal contract (the precise details of these contracts vary in name and nature, depending on your geographic location). These contracts typically outline the various property ownerships between you and your partner and allow you to specify how the assets will be divided in the event of separation.

The contract can also detail how you and your partner agree to take care of your children’s expenses (beyond merely legal responsibilities), pay off any outstanding debts that were accrued during the relationship and partition any shared acquisitions such as motor vehicles or investments. The contract can also designate how you both intend to handle your everyday expenses, including what percentage or sum of money each partner pays towards accommodation costs or other various expenses.

In order for such a contract to be legally binding, the contract must be signed by each partner, once each has had the opportunity to seek separate legal advice. The costs involved in creating a written contract is typically a worthwhile investment, as it’s far cheaper than resolving the matter through a family lawyer, after you’ve separated.

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