These days more couples are delaying marriage and many opt for living together unmarried. As more and more couples decide not to marry, but buy property and have children together, the process of breaking up has moved into the courtroom. New Mexico does not recognize common law marriage, although couples with a valid common law marriage from another state may be eligible to divorce here if they meet jurisdictional requirements. However, more and more couples are finding themselves dealing with a break-up in court than ever before.
In some states, couples who cohabitate for an extended period of time and “hold themselves out to be married,” are granted all the legal protections and responsibilities of marriage through a common law marriage. New Mexico, however, does not recognize common law marriage. In New Mexico, to obtain the rights and responsibilities of marriage, like the right to community property, a couple must be formally married by a civil magistrate, judge, clergyman, or authorized representative of a federally recognized Indian tribe. This is true regardless of how long a couple has lived together or whether or not they have children.
Couples who were married under common law in another state and later moved to New Mexico may be the only exception. A common law marriage recognized in another state will generally be recognized in New Mexico for purposes of divorce, child custody and child support. Although these couples will first have to prove that they were indeed married under the laws of their previous home state.
However, many legal issues may still apply to break-ups between unmarried couples.
The trend in New Mexico, as in the rest of the U.S., is that couples are marrying later or not getting married at all. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 45% of households in the U.S. in 2010 were unmarried. These couples often cohabitate for many years, acquire property and debt, and have children. What these couples may not realize is that not being married in New Mexico may complicate a break-up rather than make it easier.
While a family court will usually dispense with property, debt, and child custody and support matters in a single divorce decree, unmarried couples will have a longer, more complex road ahead of them. Common law couples cannot appear in family court for property division purposes because family court lacks jurisdiction over them. Division of property issues in these cases will be handled in civil court.
Even though New Mexico is a community property state, where both assets and debt are generally divided equally among spouses, there will be no community property claim unless there is a formal marriage. If property was acquired in a single name, the other party will have a hard time claiming ownership. The same rule applies to debt. If one party acquired debt in the form of a mortgage, car loan, or credit card, the other party will generally not be responsible for the debt absent a recognized marriage. If a couple is unmarried under New Mexico law, there will be no right to alimony or spousal support.
Issues pertaining to child custody in New Mexico are handled in much the same way regardless of whether the parents are married. However, there may be procedural differences that can be explained by an attorney.
In response to the trend of unmarried break-up disputes, several divorce attorneys have begun to advocate cohabitation agreements. Cohabitation agreements are legally binding contracts where couples can determine the issues pertaining to their property, debt, and parental rights and arrangements in advance. Cohabitation agreements can help avoid costly litigation should the cohabitation end.
Even though these agreements may not be the first thing to think about when a couple first moves in with each other, it may be wise to consider once the topic of joint property and children come up. And in moving forward, it may be a good idea as cynical as it may sound to seek the guidance of an experienced family law attorney.