When Partners Part: Important Steps to Take When Ending a Domestic Partnership

Once upon a time, it was socially unacceptable for couples to live together outside the bonds of marriage. Sure, back in the day people still “shacked up,” but it was frowned upon by most religions and society. According to the Current Population Survey, fifty years ago, only 0.1 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds and 0.2 percent of 25-to 34-year-olds lived with an unmarried partner. Today, among 18-24 year olds, cohabitation is now more prevalent than living with a spouse. (Nine percent live with an unmarried partner in 2018, compared to seven percent who live with a spouse.)

On January 1, 2017, the state of Alabama did away with Common Law Marriage. If you were living together prior to that date and meet the requirements, you could be “grandfathered” in — providing you meet specific qualifications, which include “the capacity to enter into a marriage, agreement of consent to be husband and wife, public recognition of the existence of the marriage, and consummation.” Couples who want to end a Common Law marriage, have to go through the same legal process as divorcing married couples.
Although not legally binding, the designation of “domestic partnership” has now become an option for many committed couples. This type of union can provide benefits, such as access to their partner’s health insurance, that were once reserved only for married spouses. The rights under domestic partnership vary from state to state and can include health insurance, life insurance, death benefits, parental rights, and sick and family leave. In the state of Alabama, neither the state nor any municipality provides specific rights to domestic partners and benefits are dictated by the employer.

Leaving a domestic partnership does not require legal action, but it can be complicated and contentious if there is no legally binding document to specify the terms of your relationship. If you find yourself dissolving your domestic partnership, seek the advice of a family law attorney. Here are six tips to remember as you go through the process of parting ways:

1) What’s Yours Is Yours: Just because your partner paid half the mortgage on the home you own, they do not have any claim to the equity gained during your time together — unless you have a written agreement or had your partner added to the deed. Likewise, any investment or other property is retained by the party who purchased it even if it was purchased during your time together.

2) What’s Ours Is Split: If you purchased items with shared funds or that were titled jointly, then those items will have to be divided. If you reach impasse on such issues, contact an attorney for guidance.

3) Insurance Benefits Are Severed: The partner holding the insurance is required to inform his employer of the change in his/her partnership status and have their partner removed from their policy. If you opted to get on your partner’s health insurance, the dissolution of a domestic partnership may be considered a “life event” (like marriage or the birth of a child) by most insurance providers and you may be able to get insurance through your own employer. It is also possible for the newly uninsured partner to be eligible for COBRA through your ex’s insurer, just like a divorced person — but that can be pricey.

4) Beneficiary Switch: Just like a divorce, when a domestic partnership is dissolved both parties should review and update the beneficiaries on all investments, insurance, and bank accounts. You’ll want to update your Will, medical directives, and power of attorney.

5) Child Support: If you’re unmarried, unless there were specific provisions made in writing with regard to supporting children of one party or the other, there will be no legal basis for securing continued support if the partner is unwilling to do so voluntarily. If the departing partner is willing to help out, the terms of that support should be put into writing by a family law attorney to ensure they will continue. You don’t know what the future might bring and without a legally binding document, if one party changes his or her mind down the road, there will be no recourse. If the partnership produced children, you will have legal recourse to secure financial support for them. Contact a family law attorney to address this situation.

6) Grieve the Loss: Just because you didn’t formally say, “I do” and don’t have to go through the standard divorce process, doesn’t mean separating from your domestic partner is any easier emotionally. In fact, there are aspects of a formal divorce which create closure in a way you may not experience when your domestic partnership ends. Seek the help a skilled therapist to help you process the stages of grief in a healthy manner.