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You’re a couple but never marrying? Family law options for you

Glamour magazine recently dubbed them “nearlyweds” — couples who consider their relationships permanent but have no plans to marry. Often enough they have children, own homes, furniture and big-screen TVs together, and have shared pets and shared bank accounts. For a variety of reasons, a growing number of American couples see no practical difference between permanent cohabitation and legal marriages registered with the state — except for the possibility of a tumultuous and expensive divorce.

In California and nationwide, societal norms are changing, as they are wont to do, and family law sometimes struggles to keep up. As clients’ legal needs evolve, family law attorneys have been innovative in meeting those needs, developing domestic partnership agreements, civil unions, and other instruments to provide unmarried couples with some of the legal protections traditionally offered by marriage.

If you’ve watched the same-sex marriage debate, you know that marriage confers countless legal protections — automatic child custody upon a spouse’s death, inheritance rights, tax benefits and next-of-kin privileges, to name a few. Without it, many of those protections have to be secured individually if they’re even available.

Nevertheless, the number of nearlyweds is growing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly three-quarters of American women have cohabitated with a romantic partner by the time they turn 30; an increase of 19 percent since 1995. Another Survey Glamour cited found that nearly 25 percent of young adults who eventually marry by homes together before they do so. Today, some 23 percent of children are born to cohabitating partners; in 2002 only 14 percent were.

The Glamour article quotes some nearlyweds and relationship experts who postulate some interesting reasons for the trend but, from a legal perspective, the question is how unmarried couples can maximize their legal protections, and those of their children, both now and in the case those relationships should end.

A domestic partnership agreement or civil union is a good start, and it should include agreements about issues such as who moves out and who gets the dog, as well as child custody, parenting time and support expectations. If you’re not ready for that, one family lawyer in Hollywood has helped couples draft what she calls “prehabs” — a sort of prenuptial agreement for couples entering into cohabitation.

Unfortunately, the end of a domestic partnership or long-term cohabitation may not be much less stressful or costly than the dissolution of a marriage. After all, virtually the same issues are involved. Make the most of the legal protections family law can offer you by carefully spelling out your expectations or by consulting an attorney.