In a New Jersey Divorce, Does it Matter if We Lived Together for Years Before We Were Married?

In this day and age, many people live together before getting married. As a New Jersey divorce attorney, this is more common than not.  Now, usually the years prior to marriage are legally irrelevant with respect to splitting your assets and even with respect to alimony.   However, from a psychological and emotional perspective, all of those years together can make these cases difficult to settle.   This is because frequently one of the parties always feels they are getting a “bad deal” due to the fact that they waited so long to get married. 

This is especially true with respect to New Jersey alimony, as the length of the marriage is one of the major factors when handling this highly sensitive issue.  However, as a savvy New Jersey divorce lawyer, I am aware that in certain cases the period of cohabitation prior to the marriage can actually come into play in certain cases.   In other words, with the appropriate facts, a New Jersey Family Court may consider pre-marital cohabitation in determining the duration of a marital relationship for alimony and equitable distribution of assets.  Let’s explore. 

When dealing with the equitable distribution of property, the court must consider the factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23.1.  Likewise, when determining an award of alimony, the court must consider the factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b).  In addition to these statutes, in certain instances the court can and should view the complete factual circumstances encompassing a parties’ extended relationship, where the shared venture of marriage may have begun before the official marriage itself.

In the case of McGee v. McGee, 277 N.J.Super. 1 (App. Div. 1994), the court reasoned that the level of actual financial dependency, not someone’s status as a spouse must determine the length of support and the amount of same. In accordance with New Jersey statutory law, a court must consider the length of the marriage when determining an award of alimony, however, the duration of the marriage and an appropriate amount or term of alimony do not translate into any mathematical formula. The court further reasoned that where the positions of the parties differ significantly at the end of a relatively short marriage, the more auspicious spouse may reasonably be called upon to take responsibility for the other party’s adversity based on the outcome of their mutual venture.

Many unpublished opinions dealing with this issue followed the McGee decision. It has been held that the court is permitted to add periods of cohabitation when determining the length of the marital relationship, if one spouse was economically dependent upon the other during the period of cohabitation.  When dealing with property, a court will also look to see whether the parties intended to create a marital partnership through this cohabitation prior to the actual marriage ceremony and whether they have acquired assets in contemplation of marriage.

One must proceed with caution though as the courts will not hold that in every case where a couple cohabits before marriage all assets acquired during cohabitation should be treated as marital assets.  A case can turn on the sense of injustice and fairness conveyed by the details of a particular case.  As such, simply because you cohabited with your spouse prior to the actual marriage does not mean that you would be entitled to pre-marital property through equitable distribution nor does it mean that this period of cohabitation will in fact count towards the duration of the “marital relationship” in every case when determining spousal support.

In any event, the Court must decide whether to consider these periods of cohabitation prior to the marriage when making a determination and award as to alimony and equitable distribution. The court should look at the totality of the circumstances in each particular case to determine whether some consideration should be given to the pre-marital period in determining a parties’ lifestyle. 

As experienced New Jersey divorce attorneys, we can help you determine your rights and what you may be entitled to concerning alimony and equitable distribution in the event you cohabited with your spouse prior to your actual marriage.  If you are looking for additional information on this and other family law matters, do not hesitate to contact our office to further discuss your rights and what you may be entitled to.