Common Law Marriage in New Jersey

by ECL Writer
Common Law Marriage in New Jersey

In the diverse landscape of marital unions, Common Law Marriage stands as a distinct and often misunderstood form of partnership. As we delve into the intricacies of legal relationships, one state that adds an interesting twist to this unconventional narrative is New Jersey. Nestled between tradition and modernity, the Garden State holds a unique stance on Common Law Marriage, captivating both legal scholars and individuals navigating the labyrinth of love.

This article aims to unravel the complexities surrounding Common Law Marriage in New Jersey, exploring the state’s specific regulations, precedents, and the impact of this unconventional union on couples’ rights. From the historical roots of Common Law Marriage to its contemporary relevance, we will traverse the legal landscape, shedding light on the implications for couples who choose this non-traditional path in the realm of matrimony. Join on a journey through the nuanced world of Common Law Marriage, where tradition meets innovation in the heart of New Jersey.

What is a Common-Law Marriage?

“Common-law marriage” describes a long-term relationship in which the partners have lived together, shared a home, and behaved as husband and wife (i.e., presented themselves to the public as a married couple and addressed their spouse as such), but have never gotten a marriage license or had a ceremony to formalize their union.

“Common-law marriage” was formerly regarded as the legal equivalent of marriage in many states, including New Jersey, with all the same rights and obligations that applied to couples who were legally married.

Does New Jersey Recognize Common-Law Marriage?

No, New Jersey outlawed common-law marriage with a law passed in 1939. Before December 1, 1939, a common-law marriage would still be recognized as lawful, but it would no longer be so.

N.J.S.A. 37:1–10 contains the complete text of the legislation that outlaws common-law marriage in New Jersey.

To be deemed legally “married” in New Jersey, a couple must obtain a valid marriage license and have their union formally sealed in a ceremony officiated by a member of an authorized person, society, institution, or organization. The marriage is null and void (invalid) if the license was not obtained or if no ceremony was performed.

Do Unmarried Partners Have Any Rights?

When unmarried couples who have been living together decide to part ways, the legal landscape governing their rights and responsibilities can be intricate, lacking the structured framework that married couples benefit from. In New Jersey, specifically, there is no provision for unmarried couples to automatically acquire the same rights and entitlements as those afforded to married couples after a certain duration of cohabitation.

Unlike divorce cases, where specific laws govern aspects such as alimony, unmarried couples do not have a comparable legal foundation for seeking financial support. In a divorce, alimony may be granted based on established criteria, including financial need. However, unmarried partners cannot invoke these same legal mechanisms to request financial assistance.

Similarly, the concept of “equitable distribution” in divorce, which dictates the fair division of property, is not directly applicable to unmarried couples. Instead, the resolution of financial matters for unmarried couples relies on a case-by-case evaluation in a court of equity, where decisions are made based on fairness.

Navigating the aftermath of a breakup for unmarried couples involves considering various factors, and outcomes can be unpredictable. The absence of a standardized legal framework means that the division of property and financial responsibilities is determined based on the unique circumstances of each case.

While the lack of clear-cut rules may introduce uncertainty, the following sections aim to offer some guidance on how financial issues between unmarried couples might be addressed in a court of equity. Individuals in such situations must seek legal counsel to understand their specific rights and responsibilities within the context of their unique circumstances.

What is Palimony?

Palimony refers to financial support or maintenance that one partner may be required to pay to another after the end of a non-marital romantic relationship. The term is a portmanteau of “pal” (friend) and “alimony” (financial support paid to a former spouse). Unlike alimony, which is typically associated with divorce, palimony applies to couples who were not married but lived together in a long-term relationship and may have shared financial responsibilities.

The concept gained attention in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s through high-profile legal cases. The legal recognition and enforcement of palimony agreements vary by jurisdiction, and not all states recognize palimony claims. In some places, couples who cohabit without marriage may need a written agreement specifying financial arrangements in the event of a breakup for palimony to be legally enforceable. Individuals in such relationships need to understand the laws in their specific jurisdiction to determine if palimony is a possible consideration.

Can I Request Palimony in New Jersey?

Before 2010, New Jersey courts routinely recognized “palimony claims,” enabling long-term partners to seek financial support after the end of their relationship. However, the landscape shifted in January 2010 when the New Jersey Legislature amended the “statute of frauds” law, imposing stringent requirements for enforcing palimony agreements. Despite the amendment, ongoing debates and legal battles persist, creating uncertainty around the application of the law.

Enactment of the 2010 Amendment:

In January 2010, the New Jersey Legislature amended the “statute of frauds” law, drastically altering the requirements for enforcing palimony claims. The amended law mandates that any promise or agreement for financial support must be:

  1. In writing.
  2. Signed by the person making the promise.
  3. Made with the independent advice of counsel, ensuring each party has legal representation during the drafting of the agreement.

Furthermore, the law explicitly states that no palimony claim can be brought to court unless the agreement meets these criteria.

Ongoing Legal Ambiguities:

Despite the 2010 amendment, some New Jersey courts have entertained palimony claims without written agreements, particularly when the promise was made or the right to palimony arose before the enactment of the law. The ambiguity lies in whether the law should apply prospectively (to post-2010 cases) or retroactively, leading to ongoing litigation and conflicting court decisions.

Prospective vs. Retroactive Application:

One of the central issues fueling legal disputes is whether the 2010 amendment should be applied only to post-2010 cases or retroactively to pre-existing claims. The lack of a clear consensus has left many palimony claims in limbo, requiring individuals to carefully assess their legal standing based on the timing of the promise and the relationship.

Navigating the Uncertainty:

Given the uncertainty surrounding palimony claims in New Jersey, individuals facing or considering such claims are advised to consult with experienced family law attorneys. Legal professionals can provide insights into the evolving legal landscape, assess the implications of the 2010 amendment on specific cases, and guide individuals on whether formalizing agreements in writing is advisable.


The legal status of palimony claims in New Jersey remains uncertain, with ongoing litigation shaping the interpretation and application of the 2010 amendment. Individuals involved in such matters are encouraged to seek legal counsel to navigate the complexities and understand their rights and responsibilities in light of the evolving legal landscape.

What Happens to the Property Acquired by Unmarried Partners?

The legal status of property acquired by unmarried partners can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the specific circumstances. In general, when unmarried couples acquire property together, it is advisable to establish clear legal arrangements to avoid potential disputes in the future. Here are some common scenarios:

  • Joint Ownership: If the property is titled in both partners’ names, it is typically considered joint property. In the event of a separation or the death of one partner, the property may be subject to division or inheritance according to the laws of the jurisdiction.
  • Tenancy in Common: Unmarried partners may choose to hold the property as “tenants in common.” This means that each partner owns a specific share of the property, and they can pass their share to heirs or sell it independently. If one partner dies, their share doesn’t automatically pass to the other partner, but rather to their designated heirs.
  • Agreements or Contracts: Couples can create legal agreements, such as cohabitation agreements or property ownership agreements, to define how their property should be handled in the event of a breakup or death. These agreements can outline each partner’s rights and responsibilities regarding the property.
  • Separate Property: If one partner solely owns the property, it is generally considered their separate property. However, financial contributions or improvements made by the other partner could potentially complicate the matter, and legal advice may be necessary to determine the extent of the non-owner’s interest.
  • Common-Law Marriage: In some jurisdictions, unmarried couples who live together for a certain period and meet other criteria may be recognized as having a common-law marriage. In such cases, the rules governing property division may be similar to those for legally married couples.

Unmarried couples must be aware of the laws in their specific jurisdiction, as they can vary significantly. Seeking legal advice and drafting clear agreements can help avoid potential conflicts and provide a framework for handling property matters in the future.

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