What Rights Do Unmarried Couples Have in Wisconsin?

What Rights Do Unmarried Couples Have in Wisconsin?

More and more often, couples are deciding to live together instead of getting married. Many couples are concerned that they cannot afford to get married; others cite worries over health insurance matters and choosing the right partner. Although it is true that marriage provides a great number of rights to a couple in Wisconsin, unmarried couples may obtain many of these rights by written agreement or by other measures.


Common law marriage

Common law marriage was abolished in Wisconsin a century ago. A couple may live together for decades and share every aspect of life—but according to Wisconsin law, they are not married. Therefore, when these couples break up and go their separate ways, they are not entitled to any of the protections that a married couple would receive during a divorce. This is especially true as it relates to the division of marital property.


How can unmarried couples protect themselves during a separation?

Many couples that never get married share bank accounts, purchase homes together, and have children. However, when they break up, what happens to the property? How will the couple decide child custody, placement, and support matters?

Even if an individual was never married, it is wise to immediately consult with a Wisconsin family law attorney to determine the steps that need to be taken to protect that individual’s interests.


In the past, Wisconsin courts have held that one party should not be unjustly enriched because a breakup occurred. An unjust enrichment claim would be appropriate, for example, if a couple worked hard to remodel a home together and, after the breakup, one of the parties got to keep the home and ultimately sell it for a profit later on. This would be unfair to the other individual who also put a substantial amount of work into the home.

To prevail in an unjust enrichment claim, one party must show:

  • Assets were obtained during the relationship;
  • These assets were acquired through the efforts of both parties; and
  • The assets are being retained by one party in an unreasonable amount.

However, the party filing the claim for unjust enrichment will spend a great amount of time and money battling the issue in court.

It is better to draft a cohabitation agreement when the parties decide to live together. Your family law attorney may help draft and enforce this agreement, as it is enforceable under principles of contract law. A cohabitation agreement is similar to a prenuptial agreement, except that the parties are not married. In a cohabitation agreement, the parties may decide how to split up expenses and bills and how to divide property if the relationship ends. A cohabitation agreement will save the parties a great deal of stress if the relationship ends.

As for custody, placement, and child support, Wisconsin requires all parents—regardless of their relationship—to provide financial and emotional support to their children. Even if the relationship ends, Wisconsin law presumes that a child benefits from strong relationships with both parents.

However, if the parents are not married, the father may not have any legal rights or obligations to the children if a formal declaration of paternity has not been entered. The parties may voluntarily declare paternity or a court hearing may be required. Before seeking child support from a father, or before a father may seek child support, placement, or custody, a formal declaration of paternity must be entered. Family law attorneys are able to assist with paternity actions to ensure the parties’ rights are protected.

At Bandle & Zaeske, LLP, our Wisconsin family law attorneys are experienced in all types of relationships—marriages, domestic partnerships, and cohabitations. No matter what your legal needs may be, we are available to guide you and protect your best interests. To schedule your free consultation, call 414-359-1424 or contact us online.

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