At the outset of a divorce proceeding, many clients will ask what they might expect from a court – or in a settlement agreement – in connection with alimony or the division of marital assets. One of many statutory factors a court may consider in fashioning support orders or property distribution is the length of the parties’ marriage. See C.G.S. § 46b-81, 82. With increasing frequency over the past several decades, however, many parties may enter a divorce proceeding with a significant period of time before the marriage during which the parties lived together as unmarried people – sharing home expenses, purchasing assets together, and accumulating marital wealth (or debts). The common expectation is that a judge would consider not just the length of the parties’ marriage, but also the length of time they lived together as unmarried people when determining what awards would be appropriate in a divorce. The law, however, takes a sharply different view.
Like many other states, Connecticut does not recognize common-law marriage as a matter of public policy. Indeed, the law “has been construed to require the marriage contract to be entered into before authorized persons and with certain formalities which the state has prescribed.” Hames v. Hames, 163 Conn. 593 (1972). Although two persons might cohabit and conduct themselves as a married couple, the law of this state neither grants to nor imposes upon them marital status. McAnerney v. McAnerney, 165 Conn. 277 (1973). Cohabitation by unmarried individuals does not in and of itself create any legal or support obligations. Boland v. Catalano, 202 Conn. 333 (1987).
Given the clear distinction in the common law between marriage and cohabitation, and in awarding greater rights and protections to people who make the formal legal commitment of marriage, the Supreme Court has determined that it would be incongruous for a divorce court, when entertaining financial orders, to take into account a period of premarital cohabitation as an additional equitable consideration. Loughlin v. Loughlin, 280 Conn. 632 (2006).
In other words, neither party in a divorce action may seek additional protections, rights, or awards from the court based simply on the length of time the parties had lived together prior to their marriage. Nevertheless, the Loughlin holding has left a window of opportunity open – however narrow – which might allow a court to consider “events” that occurred during the period of cohabitation as “indirectly” bearing on other statutory criteria for awards of support and equitable distribution (such as the health, station, occupation, amount and sources of income, vocational skills, and employability of the parties). Only a court’s strict consideration of premarital cohabitation as part of the “length of marriage” in a dissolution action is improper and prohibited by law.
By: Attorney H. Daniel Murphy
In the event that your marriage was preceded by a significant period of premarital cohabitation, you should consult with a knowledgeable and experienced attorney to determine your rights in a divorce action. Any questions about this posting or confidential inquiries concerning the subject matter may be directed to Attorney Joseph C. Maya at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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