November 23, 2000
Unmarried cohabitation can have legal and
In a column published today in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette,
court referee Patricia G. Miller explains some of the legal consequences of unmarried
cohabitation. Miller is the permanent equitable distribution master for the Family
Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County
"Cohabitation" is not a commonly-used word, but it is one that is frequently
important to divorce lawyers. It has to do with people's living arrangements, and how a
living arrangement is defined can mean hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to divorce
lawyers and their clients.
Webster's Dictionary defines cohabitation as "to live together as husband and
wife" or "to share the same place." Ah, there's the rub. There is a huge
difference between those two definitions.
Miller looks at the two ways the question comes up, both of
which can cost people lots of money.
The first relates to alimony. Divorce law in Pennsylvania prohibits paying alimony to a
who is cohabiting -- but not with just anyone. It has to be with an unrelated member of
the opposite sex.
Miller gives two examples.
Suppose Ann and Beth are living together. Ann is divorced and
is receiving alimony for 24 months. Ann and Beth happen to be lesbians who share an
intimate relationship that they consider the functional equivalent of marriage.
Might Ann lose her alimony? Only if the court went by Webster's definitions. She wouldn't
under Pennsylvania's divorce law, which specifies cohabiting as being with an unrelated
member of the opposite sex. Ann would be home free while her alimony-paying ex-spouse
Now suppose that Mary Jones is living with Charles Smith. Like Ann, Mary is receiving
alimony. She and Charles are roommates who share expenses such as rent and utilities but
not a bed. They have absolutely no romantic relationship. In fact, each is engaged to
someone else. Has Mary lost her right to alimony? Maybe.
Miller explains that if Mary's ex-husband feels like testing the law, he has a good chance
of winning. Mary's living arrangement meets the state law's specification of cohabitation
as living with an unrelated member of the opposite sex, as well as Webster's second
definition: "to share the same living space."
Miller then shifts her focus to Nancy, an Erie County resident, who learned this the hard
Nancy, who had a right to receive alimony for 36 months, took a sick friend into her home.
While being motivated by a philanthropic desire to aid a friend in need, she made two
serious mistakes: Her housemate was a member of the opposite sex, and they shared a bed.
When her ex-husband took her to court to terminate her right to alimony, she vigorously
denied that there was any sexual relationship. It didn't matter. Even though her former
husband couldn't prove any sexual or financial interdependence, the shared living
arrangement, coupled with the shared bed, did her in.
But it is not merely dependent ex-spouses receiving alimony who need to worry about what
cohabitation means. So do divorcing couples who have to divide their property. The only
property that can be divided by a divorce court is that which was acquired before
separation. Anything acquired later belongs only to the person who acquired it. A problem
arises when couples disagree on when they separated.
Pennsylvania's divorce law says that separation is the ending of all cohabitation. It's
not the most helpful definition. Suppose that a husband won $50,000 in the lottery. His
wife says it was before separation, so the money is marital and she gets a share. The
husband says it was after separation, so it isn't marital.
How can that be, Miller rhetorically asks, because people are either living together or
they aren't? Life isn't always that clear cut she says.
It is not at all uncommon to see an unhappily married couple with a two- or three-year
difference of opinion about when they separated. Typically, the earliest date is when one
of them decided that the marriage was over and filed for divorce or started sleeping on
the couch. The end date is when one of them actually moves out. What went on in the
interval was the gradual deterioration of their marriage.
Miller concludes by pointing out that, no matter whether you are an ex-spouse paying or
receiving alimony, or married and wondering about that lottery ticket, there is no
clear-cut cohabitation test in Pennsylvania. She suggests that people may want to consult
your divorce lawyer before you move to the couch, win the lottery or invite a friend to
share your living quarters.
Tuesday, November 21, 2000
New study explores myths and facts of
A story published today in the Washington Post reports that a new study has been released
which discusses the myths and facts of unwed motherhood.
More than 1 million babies are born to unmarried women in the
United States every year. Although attitudes attitudes on this subject have changed since
the Puritans held sway in the 1600s, the myths about unwed mothers still persist.
Now a major government report on the subject goes a long way to dispel the myths. Entitled
"Nonmarital Childbearing in the UnitedStates," the report analyzes trends in
out-of-wedlock births over the past 50 years and explores the changes in marriage patterns
that have led to the increase.
The first myth is that unwed motherhood is only a phenomenon in the
African American community. In fact, the birth rate among unmarried black women has
recently declined, while it has steadily increased among unmarried white women. To be
sure, out-of-wedlock births have been historically high among black women--peaking in 1970
when the rate was nearly seven times the rate for white women. By 1998 the gap had
narrowed, with blacks having about double therate.
The second myth is that nonmarital births are a problem only among
teenagers. It's true that nearly 80 percent of teenagers who have a child are not married.
But the birth rate for teenagers dropped substantially in the 1990s. Most unwed
mothers are not teenagers. Today two-thirds of out-of-wedlock births occur in women older
The third myth is that unwed motherhood is an American phenomenon. In
fact, the United States is not even the leader. In 1998, two-thirds of the births in
Iceland and half or more of the births in Norway and Sweden were to unmarried women,
compared with one-third in the United States. France, Great Britain, Denmark and Finland
all have higher nonmarital birth rates than the United States. "We're not such an
anomaly," notes demographer Stephanie Ventura of the National Center for Health
Statistics and a co-author of the report.
The fourth myth is that unwed childbearing is out of control and will
continue to rise until virtually all births are to unwed mothers. Actually, births to
unmarried women leveled off in the past 10 years. They rose dramatically between 1940 and
1990. Since then, they have remained stable at about 33 percent of all births--with
declining rates among teenagers and blacks.
The fifth myth is that children born to unmarried mothers are raised in a
single-parent household. That's not necessarily true: An increasing number are born to men
and women who live together as a couple. "Two out of five recent nonmarital births
are occurring to cohabiting couples," points out the report's co-author, Christine
Bachrach of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
This reflects the shifting patterns of marriage. Men and women are marrying at older ages.
They are also more likely to cohabit, as a prelude or alternative to marriage. As Bachrach
says, "The really critical thing that has changed is marriage."
The story says that much more research needs to be done on the long-term effects of
cohabitation as a form of family. Early studies show that these unions are not as stable
as marriages. But at the very least, cohabitation suggests that the child is born into a
two-parent household and can expect to have the love and attention of a mother and a
California ACLU encourages all affiliates to
work with AASP
Ramona Ripston, executive director of the
ACLU of Southern California, sent the following memo to each state affiliate of the ACLU.
Ripston is an honorary member of the American Association for Single People.
"The Board of Directors of the American
Civil Liberties Union of Southern California recently endorsed the 'Human Rights Agenda'
(attached) of the American Association for Single People (AASP) and has agreed to work
more closely with that organization as we work to end marital status discrimination.
I urge other ACLU affiliates to consider working with the AASP whenever issues
involving this insidious form of discrimination present themselves in your region.
"Our Board of Directors has also
endorsed the AASP's 'Singles-Friendly Workplace Campaign and "Stop the Stigma
Campaign." The purpose of the 'Singles-Friendly Workplace Campaign," among
other thins, is to ensure that single workers are treated fairly and to advocate for
domestic partnership benefits for unmarried couples, gay and straight. The purpose
of the "Stop the Stigma Campaign" is to call to the attention of judges the
harmful effects of stigmatizing language (e.g., 'illegitimate') sometimes used in their
written opinions and orally from the bench when they refer to a child born to unmarried
parents. I am enclosing summaries describing these important efforts.
"For more information about the American
Association for Single People, you may want to visit the organization's website: