Family Law

Modern Family Structure: The Move Away From Marriage

The notion of the nuclear family comprised of a husband, wife, and children has changed significantly within the last few generations. A family now may include multiple generations under the same roof. Sexual orientation and gender identification no longer matter to how the law treats a family. Family doesn't necessarily mean marriage, either. Particularly among younger generations, cohabitation is becoming more common.

These changes in family structure can lead to some legal complications. A cohabitating couple does not necessarily have the same legal rights as a married couple, for example. There can also be issues with child custody, child support, adoption, and other family law matters. The law can be slow to catch up with social trends, so it is important you understand your legal rights and obligations under the law, regardless of whether you are married or cohabitating.

US Marriage Rates

The number of people getting married in the U.S. has declined, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In 2001, there were 8.2 marriages per 1,000 people. In 2018, that lowered to 6.5 marriages per 1,000 people, a fall of about 20%.

While there is a lot of debate about the exact reasons why marriage rates are declining, some arguments include economic concerns, public policy, and shifting societal norms. Surveys and academic studies have cited high student loan debt, changing roles in the home, and the inability to live on a single-parent income as reasons to delay marriage. It can also be difficult for many to afford a home or children, which also tends to delay getting married.

The Role of Marriage in Society

Marriage brings out strong emotions in some people, either for or against. Some oppose ever getting married, others worry if they are not married by a certain age. Historically, marriage in America has been considered a fundamental and sacred institution, and in many respects, that view still holds in the law. For example, in allowing same-sex marriage, many of the Supreme Court justices supporting same-sex marriage pointed out how fundamental marriage is to American society and the privileges the law provides to married couples.

Currently, marriage can provide tax benefits (or additional obligations), provide citizenship, provide health care benefits, and help with estate planning matters. It also provides rights in a split, as spouses tend to have certain rights in a divorce that a cohabitating couple may not.

What Is the Legal Process for Getting Married?

Getting married is typically a straightforward process that is governed by the state in which the couple is getting married. The couple signs a marriage license and registers it with the state. There are certain requirements to getting married, such as being over a certain age and being of sound mind. However, provided you meet the requirements, getting married is not a complicated legal process. Every state recognizes a legal marriage from other U.S. states.

What Is Common Law Marriage?

While most couples obtain a marriage license to be recognized as a married couple, some states allow common law marriage. A common law marriage occurs when a cohabitating couple has lived together long enough to be recognized by the state as married. However, there are only a few states that still recognize common law marriage, and cohabitating couples cannot be sure that their union will be recognized as a marriage. That means couples wishing to be recognized as a married couple by their state should obtain a marriage license.

Potential Outcomes of the Change in Cohabitation Norms

If a couple wishes to live together or raise children without getting married, there may be a corresponding increase in the need for legal documents that provide some of the same benefits as marriage. For example, powers of attorney, health care directives, estate planning documents, and other legal documents can fully or partially replace traditional marriage rights and obligations.

If you do not wish to get married but want to buy a home, raise children, or adopt a child together, or you want to leave health care decisions in the hands of your significant other, it may be worthwhile to consult with a family law attorney to discuss what you can do to avoid any legal difficulties that can come up in long-term cohabitation relationships.

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