The dissolution of a long-term committed relationship can be as involved and complicated as a divorce. Many unmarried couples have children, jointly-owned property and share other assets that must be divided between them after a split. As a result, many states have established legal rights and laws that deal with unmarried couples. Additionally, some states that do not allow gay marriage recognize domestic partnerships and have enacted laws pertaining to the dissolution of those unions.
Putative Spouse Doctrine
The putative spouse doctrine comes into play with "defective" marriages, i.e., instances where the couple was not legally married but one or both spouses thought they were lawfully married (and their belief, however misguided, was in good faith and based on objectively reasonable grounds). If the court finds this unique situation exists, the couple be treated as spouses, as though they were actually married, and will have the same rights as a married couple at divorce.
The term domestic partnership refers to unmarried couples who cohabitate and have a relationship comparable to a married couple. Domestic partnerships can be homosexual or heterosexual in nature. Some states, such as California, Washington DC, and Oregon, regulate domestic partnerships legally. That is, a domestic partnership is a legal status that is entered into by the couple like a marriage. Some states also limit the classification to same-sex couples. Depending on how the state treats domestic partnerships, each party may have rights and obligations in a break-up.
Protection through Contract Law
Courts may also apply contract law to unmarried couples who lived together. Most commonly, the courts will apply the legal theory quantum meruit, which is latin for "as much as he deserved." In the context of contract law, quantum meruit is the reasonable value of one's services. This legal understanding is applied to instances where one party to the unmarried couple is a homemaker for all or a portion of the relationship. In those instances, the courts will place a monetary value on the homemaker services the same way it would with a spouse who stayed at home. The courts recognize the relationship as a contract and compensate the stay-at-home partner appropriately. When dealing with unmarried couples, courts may also elect to apply joint venture principles.
Common Law Marriage
A minority of states have common law marriage, defined as a marriage that occurs without a license or ceremony when a heterosexual couple lives together continuously for a period of time and consider themselves a married couple. In states where common law marriage exists, the court will treat the separation as a divorce and extend the same rights to both parties as married couples.