Single individuals, unmarried couples, and non-marital 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 compensation by some employers with domestic partner programs that exclude unmarried heterosexual couples

  • 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

Criminal Laws:

Unmarried cohabitation:

Six states continue to make it a crime for an unmarried man and a woman to cohabit together: Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia fall into this category.  Arizona and New Mexico decriminalized unmarried cohabitation in 2001.  North Dakota repealed its law in 2007.  The validity of the North Carolina law is questionable due to a trial court ruling in 2006 declaring it unconstitutional.


Seven states and the District of Columbia 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.        

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 grounds 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.

Illegitimacy Laws:

Forty-one states stigmatize children born to unmarried parents. Thirteen states have statutes that call such kids "bastards" while laws or judges in the other 28 states call them "illegitimate."

Tax Laws

A person who dies may leave assets to a spouse without paying any federal estate tax at all. However, the feds impose up to 50% in taxes when a single person dies with an estate over $2 million. Many states also discriminate against single people in inheritance taxes. Singles are shortchanged in the social security system too. They pay the same employment taxes into the system but receive fewer benefits than married couples do. Workplace benefits for a spouse are tax free, but domestic partner benefits are generally taxable. Many married couples pay lower income taxes because they can file a joint return, while unmarried partners do not have this tax-saving option. A single person may not claim "head of household" status for an unrelated household dependent. Federal law does not allow a taxpayer to claim an unmarried partner as an income tax dependent if the couple lives in one of the states with criminal laws against unmarried cohabitation or fornication. Spouses are exempt from vehicle and real estate transfer taxes when ownership is transferred, but a single person who transfers title to a friend or domestic partner must pay the transfer tax.

Zoning Laws:

Many cities have zoning laws which allow an unlimited number of relatives to live together in a "single family" zone but prohibit a group of single adults from living in the same area.

Domestic Partnership Laws:

Some states, and a few dozen cities, now have domestic partner registries in which unmarried couples may publicly declare their family relationship and gain a few legal protections.  However, some of these registries contain gender restrictions which exclude heterosexual couples from eligibility.

The State of California will not allow unmarried heterosexual couples under the age of 62 to participate in a domestic partner registration system which confers hospital visitation rights. Several cities in the nation also have unfairly excluded unmarried opposite-sex couples from their public registries or employee benefits programs. Vermont won’t allow unmarried heterosexual couples to register under its "civil union" law, making marriage their only option.

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.

Insurance Discrimination Laws:

Many states have laws prohibiting some forms of discrimination by insurance companies.  However, marital status discrimination remains largely unregulated.

Unmarried consumers often experience marital status discrimination.  Some auto insurance companies charge higher rates to unmarried drivers than to married drivers with a similar driving record. Other companies issue joint auto and renter policies to married couples but won’t give the reduced joint-policy rate to unmarried partners. Some companies won’t allow a single person to name an unrelated adult as a beneficiary on a life insurance policy, on the theory that the intended beneficiary would not have an insurable interest in the life of the insured.

Credit Discrimination Laws:

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