Unmarried couples are, by definition, not married.  So although they may act like married couples, live like married couples, have families like married couples, in some ways the court system treats them differently.

Unmarried couples who end their relationship and have children together are subject to the same custody laws as married but separated, or divorced couples.  Same process to start a custody action, attend a custody conference, go to a court hearing, etc.  Or better yet, the same process to resolve the parenting arrangements by agreement through mediation or the collaborative law process.

Unmarried couples who own property together and end their relationship are not treated the same as married couples.  The Divorce Code provisions regarding equitable distribution of marital property do not apply to unmarried couples.  If you were married for 30 years and one spouse contributed to a retirement account, that retirement account is marital property and will be subject to equitable distribution upon a divorce.  If you were a couple for 30 years but not married and one partner contributed to a retirement account, that account belongs solely to the contributing partner.  If your relationship ends, the other partner has no claim to any portion of that retirement account.  The same rule applies to all property acquiring by unmarried partners, unless one partner can show that he or she contributed to purchasing or paying for the property

If unmarried partners both contributed to purchasing an asset or the asset is titled in their joint names, both can make a legal claim to the property.  In that case, the property may be distributed as if you were business partners through a civil court action, not equitable distribution under the Divorce Code.

Unmarried couples also have no claim for financial support from the other partner in the event of a separation.  It does not matter how long you were together or whether one partner was the primary “breadwinner” in the household.  There is no legal support obligation between unmarried partners.

A cohabitation agreement can change these default rules.  If you live or work in the central Pennsylvania area, including Mechanicsburg, Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding communities and would like to discuss family law issues and unmarried couples or any other family law or estate planning or administration issue, please contact me.