This day and age, more and more people are choosing to be involved in serious long-term relationships, some even living with their partners, without getting married. Some people simply don’t feel the need to formalize their relationship, some have had bad marriages, and some have their own reasons to avoid marriage. What happens when these relationships fail?
The state of Illinois has not recognized common law marriage for decades, and until the 1970s, cohabitation between non-married couples was prohibited by law. The prohibition is long gone, but the question of how to divide property between non-married cohabitants lingers. While several variations of the question have been answered by the Illinois courts, the Appellate Court recently addressed the question again in the Allen case. In re the Marriage of Allen, 2016 IL App (1st) 151620.
The Allens were husband and wife that had been romantically involved for roughly 13 years. They had cohabited for intermittent periods during those years, and in 2012, they were married. Both parties filed Petitions for Dissolution roughly seven (7) months after they were married. The husband, Keith, had substantial non-marital assets, including a very successful group of McDonald’s restaurants. Wife, Debra, had some job experience and was college educated, but she did not have any meaningful wealth. While the parties had only been married for several months, Debra asserted that she should be awarded maintenance in addition to a portion of the marital property larger than the short term marriage would normally allow. She later added a claim of unjust enrichment, based on the Appellate Court’s holding in Blumenthal v. Brewer.
In Blumenthal, the court dealt with the break-up of a long-term same-sex relationship. The parties had cohabitated and accumulated significant assets. In an attempt to secure an equitable division of the assets, one of the parties asserted an unjust enrichment claim, asking the court to partition the real property shared by the parties as well as a business owned by one of the parties. At the time, the controlling case was Hewitt v. Hewitt, which barred common law partition and unjust enrichment claims between non-married cohabitants. That claim was dismissed by the trial court, but that dismissal was vacated by the appellate court. At the time of the court’s decision, Illinois had enacted legislation creating civil unions for same-sex couples and public policy had changed such that non-marital cohabitation was no longer frowned upon by the authorities. The Blumenthal court held that Hewitt was not controlling under the circumstances because whereas the couple in Hewitt could have married at any time, the parties in Blumenthal did not have that option available to them. Accordingly, the appellate court allowed the unjust enrichment claims to proceed.
After a review of the Blumenthal and Hewitt decisions, the Allen court found that Hewitt was controlling. Like the couple in Hewitt, the Allens could have married at any time during the course of their 13 year relationship but choose not to. Accordingly, Debra’s claims for maintenance and property division were rightfully limited to the seven month period during which the parties were married. What’s the lesson in all of this? Absent written agreement or other extraordinary circumstances, nonmarried couples lack any legal protection when it comes to property rights and maintenance – even if they are cohabitating.
Are you in a long-term non-marital relationship? Contact The Nally Law Group today to discuss ways to protect yourself and your rights in the event of a breakup.