The construction of the "typical" American family is changing. Fewer young couples in particular are opting to marry each other. Rather, these cohabitating couples live lives together that are often as financially and socially intertwined as that of married couples while foregoing the legal formality of marriage. These cohabitating couples often face unique challenges when they decide to split.
First, if the couple has any children, custody and support arrangements must be made just as they must for divorcing couples. However, these arrangements may be more challenging to navigate if one of the parents is not biologically tied to the child or if paternity has never been formally established.
Second, the division of property, assets, support income and debt can be complex. When couples marry, their income and debt from "I do" onward is generally considered jointly held. However, cohabitating couples do not benefit and become constrained by such a bright line. Determining how to divide joint property, assets and debt begins with an exploration of who owns, is entitled to or may be held responsible for these things in the first place. That exploration is often more complicated when couples have never married.
The law favors the best interests of children and the property rights of adults whether or not marriage has taken place. Therefore, it is critical for cohabitating couples to consult an experienced attorney upon dissolution of their relationship. Failure to do so could lead to an unfair "divorce" from the relationship in terms of both property division and child-related issues.
Source: New York Observer, "No Divorce Is the New Divorce: Moms and Dads Navigate Messy Breakups in Marriage-less World," Rose Surnow, Mar. 19, 2013