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Single individuals, unmarried couples, and nonmarital families experience a wide variety of discrimination-related problems. Some of these problems include:

  • children born to unmarried parents being labeled by the law as "bastards" or "illegitimate"

  • criminal laws imposing penalties for consenting sex in private or for unmarried cohabitation

  • discrimination in hiring and firing

  • being paid less benefits compensation than married employees

  • being denied equal benefits by some companies with "gays only" domestic partner programs

  • being refused housing by some landlords, especially those with religious bias against singles

  • paying higher insurance rates simply because of being unmarried

  • being refused the option of a joint insurance policy for domestic partners

  • sometimes having to pay higher taxes than a married couple

  • being refused to live with unrelated people in an area zoned for "single family" use

  • being denied child custody or having visitation restrictions if living with a domestic partner

This part of the web site contains information on the following topics:

Examples of Discrimination Against Unmarried Adults


Laws Affecting Unmarried Adults


Real Life Cases of Marital Status Discrimination


Examples Of Discrimination Against Unmarried Adults

Marital status discrimination is widespread in the United States. Most marital status discrimination is targeted against unmarried adults, although some forms of discrimination are perpetrated against married couples (e.g., anti-nepotism employment rules, an income tax "marriage penalty").


Some employers prefer to hire married workers. This is especially true for absentee owners of apartment buildings who prefer to hire, or who will only hire, married-couple caretakers.

Some employers tend to favor married workers when it comes to promotions, on the theory that they better fit the image the company wants to project to the public.  

Some employers have refused to hire workers who are living with an unmarried partner. Cases of such discrimination against heterosexual workers have been documented in places such as California, Arizona, and Minnesota.                   

Most employers discriminate against unmarried workers when it comes to employee benefits, giving more benefits compensation to married employees than to single employees.

Some employers, such as Xerox, Bank of America, Bank Boston, and Merrill Lynch, have taken steps to eliminate benefits discrimination against unmarried workers.

A growing number of employers (over 600 now) have expanded spousal or family benefits programs to include domestic partners. However, about 40% of these programs exclude opposite-sex domestic partners, forcing them to get married in order to receive equal benefits compensation.

Some employers are adopting cafeteria-style benefits plans so each worker has the same amount of credits to be used for benefits that suit his or her personal or family needs, regardless of marital status.


Zoning: Many cities have zoning laws that prohibit a group of unrelated adults from living together in an area zoned for single-families. In recent years, some of these laws have been repealed (Denver’s R-0 zoning law is an example) or declared unconstitutional by the courts (New York, New Jersey, and California are examples).

Renters: Some landlords won’t rent to single adults, single parents, or unmarried couples. Some of them cite religious beliefs against unmarried cohabitation.         


A study done by the California Insurance Commissioner’s Anti-Discrimination Take Force in 1993 documented that marital status discrimination by insurance companies is widespread. It occurs in almost all lines of insurance. Responsible single adults are judged by insurers on the basis of class stereotypes, rather than on the basis of past performance or individual merit.


A study done by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Consumer Task Force on Marital Status Discrimination in 1990 found that despite the fact that unmarried adults constituted a MAJORITY of the adult population in Los Angeles, marital status discrimination was regularly practiced by many businesses, including: landlords, automobile clubs, health spas, credit unions, airlines, mortuaries, etc.                

Child Custody and Visitation:

Courts in some states have included restrictions in a child custody order prohibiting the custodial parent from living with a person of the opposite-sex outside of wedlock or forbidding a paramour from staying overnight in the custodial home.                   

Enforcement of Contracts:

Courts in some states refuse to enforce cohabitation agreements between unmarried partners on the ground that it would be against public policy.

Statutory and Judicial Stigmatization:

Statutes in many states still refer to a child born out of wedlock as a "bastard" or as "illegitimate." Some court decisions refer to an unmarried female partner as a "concubine" or to domestic partners as a "meretricious" relationship (i.e. of, or pertaining to, prostitution).

Laws Affecting Unmarried Adults

Criminal Laws:

Eight states have statutes on the books which make it a crime for an unmarried man and a woman to cohabit together: Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia fall into this category.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have laws which make it a crime for a man and a woman to engage in consensual intercourse in private: Idaho, Massachusetts, Minnesota, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and D.C. fall into this category.        

Twelve  states have statutes which make it a crime for an unmarried man and woman to engage in consensual sodomy in private (which is defined as oral or anal sex or both): Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia fall into this category.             

Laws prohibiting consensual sodomy have been used to put defendants in prison for consensual heterosexual sex with another adult. Even when juries have found defendants not guilty of rape, on the rationale that the conduct was consensual, they have found defendants guilty of sodomy because the judge had instructed the jury that, unlike rape, consent is not a defense to the crime of sodomy.

A decision by the United States Supreme Court, Lawrence v. Texas, filed in June 2003 has effectively declared that all of the statutes mentioned above are unconstitutional.  Now it will be up to the legislatures in these states to repeal them or for the Attorneys General in these states to declare them invalid and unenforceable.  Although these laws are theoretically invalid due to the Supreme Court decision, lawmakers or enforcers in these states must take some action to officially acknowledge that the Supreme Court ruling applies to these laws.

Civil effects of criminal laws:

Some courts that have restricted the civil rights of unmarried cohabitants have cited criminal laws against fornication or cohabitation as the rationale for doing so. For example, courts in Washington, Minnesota, Michigan, Maryland have relied on these criminal laws as the basis for denying fair housing rights to unmarried couples, despite express statutory prohibitions against "marital status" discrimination.                         

Some courts have cited these criminal laws as a basis for refusing to enforce cohabitation or "palimony" agreements, on the ground that doing so would violate public policy.

Some courts have cited criminal laws prohibiting consenting adult sexual behavior as the basis for decisions denying child custody or restricting visitation by a parent.

Some federal courts have cited fornication or anti-cohabitation laws as a ground to deny taxpayers the right to declare an unmarried cohabitant as a "dependent" for federal income tax purposes.

Employment Discrimination Laws:

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Act does not prohibit marital status discrimination.

Only 21 states have laws that prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of marital status.

Housing Discrimination Laws:

The federal Fair Housing Act does not prohibit marital status discrimination.

Fewer than half of the states have laws that prohibit landlords from discriminating on the basis of marital status.

In some of these states, courts have narrowly interpreted these laws so that unmarried couples do not receive protection from housing discrimination, e.g., Maryland, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota.

In other states, the courts have broadly interpreted these laws to give unmarried couples protection from housing discrimination, e.g., Alaska, California, Michigan New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Credit Discrimination Laws:

Federal law, and laws in some states, prohibit marital status discrimination in credit.

Real Life Cases Of Marital Status Discrimination

Debra Deem and Jim Riley live in Camarillo. Sometimes people stop to ask what the bumper sticker on their car means. The slogan reads: "Refugees from Arizona laws." Although it is sometimes an inconvenience, the couple feel that it is their duty to take a few minutes to tell their story to those who inquire.

They formerly lived in Alaska. When Jim received a job offer in Arizona, Debra quit her position as a victim-witness coordinator with the Anchorage district attorney and moved with Jim.

Debra applied for a job as a juvenile probation officer with Maricopa County. She thought she had the job when the recruiter saw her resume, the high job performance ratings with her previous employer, and her excellent personal references.

Then came the final page on the application. Debra had to answer several personal inquiries under penalty of perjury about prior arrests, drug use, etc.

The final question infuriated her. Do you live with a person of the opposite sex outside of wedlock? When she said "yes," the interview process ended.

Arizona and 12 other states have laws making unmarried cohabitation a crime. The county would not hire a "criminal" for a law enforcement position. Debra and Jim packed their belongings and headed for California. They assumed they would find toleration and respect here. They assumed they would be judged on the basis of individual merit rather than class stereotypes. Were their assumptions correct? Read on.

Robert Henderson was seeking a job with the San Diego chapter of the Boy Scouts of America. The position involved recruiting adult volunteers for the group. Robert had impeccable references. During the interview, he was asked about his marital status. Robert explained that he and his fiancÚ lived together and planned to marry, although they had not yet established a firm date for the wedding. Robert was denied the position because the employer disapproved of unmarried cohabitation.

Bryan Molenda moved to Los Angeles from Detroit where he had once been an on-site manager of a medium size apartment complex. Bryan looked in the Los Angeles Times and Daily News to find a similar job. He was surprised to see ad after ad indicate that only married couples need apply. Bryan called a few ads anyway. He explained that although he was single, he did not live alone. His domestic partner, Xavier, would be living with him and so he could help Bryan with the chores. The responses were all the same: "married couples only." Bryan moved back to Detroit.

Tony Melia had just retired. He wanted to travel more and so he bought a motor home. Tony was shocked when he called his insurance company and told the agent about his plans. Although he had an unblemished driving record, the agent informed Tony that the company added a hefty surcharge on all single drivers. Tony had no choice but to pay the penalty.

Ken Phillips and Gail Randall were looking for an apartment to rent in Chico. They found the perfect place, filled out an application, and handed the landlady a deposit. There was one last minute inquiry: "You are married, aren’t you?" When the landlady found out that Ken and Gail were unmarried partners, she flatly refused to rent to them. Never mind the fact that they had lived together for years, had good jobs, and could give wonderful references from prior landlords.

Ken and Gail fought back. They filed a complaint with the state fair housing agency. The tribunal ruled that the landlady had violated a state law against marital status discrimination in housing.

But the landlady appealed and won the first round in court. The Court of Appeal agreed that discrimination against unmarried couples in housing is illegal. But the court sided with the landlady anyway, on the theory that a business owner with religious objections to unmarried cohabitation does not have to obey the state’s civil rights laws.          

Gail and Ken took their case to the California Supreme Court. Eventually, the high court sided with the tenants, refusing to give "special rights" to business owners who want to discriminate under the guise of religious freedom. The landlady appealed, but the U. S. Supreme Court rejected her case.

In 1996, some 10 years later, Ken and Gail won their case. But with such delays and associated costs, little wonder that most victims of marital status discrimination have been reluctant to fight back.

Terry Taylor worked for the City of Los Angeles and belonged to the Los Angeles City Employees Federal Credit Union. Taylor was living with her fiancÚ, Roger Naas. Terry wanted to buy a new car but did not make enough money to qualify for credit on her own. She and Roger therefore sought to apply for a joint loan from the credit union.

They were turned down. Not because of bad credit or lack of joint resources. The loan was rejected solely because the credit union would not give joint loans to unmarried couples.

The problem was that credit unions can only issue loans to members. Members can be city employees or their immediate family members.

Terry and Roger discovered that the board of directors of the credit union had voted to define "immediate family" as being limited to spouses or blood relatives of employees.

Although Terry and Roger never got a loan, the problem was later corrected after it was exposed by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Consumer Task Force on Marital Status Discrimination.

The credit union board finally changed its by-laws to define "family" in a more expansive manner, so that spouses, blood relatives, or other household members such as domestic partners may now join.

Attorney Marsha Levine and her fiancÚ, Alfred Sharff, who works in the television production business, also have experienced credit discrimination. Marsha and Alfred had very traditional marriage plans. They each maintained a separate home and would not live together until they wed.

During their engagement, they found the perfect home which they intended to purchase before their wedding date. They applied for a joint loan from the Dreyfus Consumer Bank.

Although the home would have been jointly owned, and although they had sufficient incomes and good credit, Dreyfus would not approve the loan unless Marsha and Alfred signed a notarized affidavit that they planned to be married and specified the date their marriage would occur.

Although the couple had a date in mind, they felt that the conditions imposed by Dreyfus were illegal. As a result, they withdrew their application and found an unconditional loan elsewhere.

Gregory Anderson and Michael Connolly lived together for nine years. They jointly owned a condominium in New York where the couple lived. Michael was murdered by a stranger when he was visiting Los Angeles. After police investigated the case, a key suspect admitted that he was guilty.

When Gregory heard that the man had been sentenced, he contacted the detective assigned to the case to determine the defendant’s name, the terms of his sentence, or the place of his imprisonment.

The detective refused to disclose this information because Gregory was not a spouse or blood relative of the victim.

The story of Juan Navarrete and Leroy Tranton is even more tragic. Juan and Leroy lived together in Long Beach for eight years. One day, Juan came home from the grocery store and found Leroy, who had fallen off a ladder, lying on the concrete patio. Leroy was rushed to the hospital where he stayed in a coma for several days. Although Leroy regained consciousness, he remained hospitalized for nine months. Juan visited Leroy once or twice each day, feeding him and encouraging him to recuperate.

Leroy’s estranged brother, who lived in Maine, filed a lawsuit seeking to have himself appointed as Leroy’s conservator.

When Juan accidentally found out, he showed up at court in Long Beach. Although Juan, who was not represented by counsel, stood up and protested, the judge refused to consider Juan’s plea because he was a stranger to Leroy in the eyes of the law.

The brother subsequently had Leroy transferred from the hospital to an undisclosed location. When Juan finally discovered that Leroy was being housed in a nursing home about 50 miles from Long Beach, he attempted to visit Leroy there. The staff stopped Juan in the lobby, advising him that the brother had given them a photo of Juan with strict orders not to allow him to visit Leroy. Unfortunately, no one else ever visited Leroy there.

It took Juan about two weeks to find an attorney who would take the case without charge. The attorney filed a lawsuit seeking visitation rights.

A few hours before the hearing was scheduled to occur, the brother’s attorney called Juan’s attorney, informing him that Leroy had died three days before.               

Since the body had already been flown back to Maine where it was cremated, Juan never had an opportunity to pay his last respects.


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