North Carolina Legal Issues for Unmarried Couples

unmarried couple living under the same roof

North Carolina law does not afford many legal rights for couples who live together before marriage. The state does not recognize common-law marriage. This means if a couple splits up, they will have no legal protection regarding how property is divided. There is also no rule on whether either party should pay the other support, except in situations involving minor children.

With so few provisions for unmarried couples in North Carolina, it is wise for partners who wish to live together to enter into a cohabitation agreement. This agreement establishes an enforceable contract that could state how the couple would divide assets and debts if they were to break up. It could also address other topics like spousal support (alimony).

The family law attorneys at Charles R. Ullman & Associates can help you establish how you and your partner will settle your affairs in the event of a breakup. Couples in long-term relationships often share a significant amount of property, and one partner may have relied substantially on the other financially. If you’re splitting up with a partner and running into conflicts over property division and other matters, our experienced attorneys can advise on potential ways to resolve these disputes amicably. But if your split has become acrimonious, we can represent you to ensure your rights are upheld and your interests are protected.

Our firm’s founder, Charles R. Ullman, is a North Carolina State Bar-certified Family Law Specialist with more than 25 years of experience providing compassionate and professional separationdivorce, mediation, and arbitration services in the Raleigh, NC, area. We also help couples establish legally binding prenuptial and postnuptial agreements and cohabitation agreements.

Contact us today to schedule a confidential initial consultation with one of our Raleigh family law attorneys.

Legal Rights of Unmarried Couples Living Together in NC

Couples living together without the benefit of marriage are commonplace today. Many live together in anticipation of getting married, and some have no intention of marrying. Few people give such couples a second thought. But in fact, cohabitation is illegal in North Carolina.

Cohabitation means living together unmarried but continuously and habitually as a married couple would. This typically means sharing financial responsibilities, jointly buying and owning property, and presenting yourselves to the community as if you were married.

There are no particular legal rights that individuals accrue by cohabitating. However, the lack of marriage does not negate a parent’s obligation to care for their child. Parents have a legal obligation to support their children until they turn 18, and custody decisions will depend on what’s best for each child.

No Common Law Marriages in North Carolina

unmarried couple trying to solve legal disputeMany people misbelieve that, after several years, a cohabitating couple’s status becomes one of common law marriage. Only a few states recognize common law marriage, or a marriage without such formalities as a marriage license or ceremony. North Carolina is not one of them.

However, because of the U.S. Constitution’s full faith and credit clause, if you are recognized as joined by a common law marriage in one state and were to move to North Carolina, you would also be recognized as married in the Tar Heel State. And if you are joined by common law marriage, you must go through a formal divorce to end your legally recognized marriage.

But, without the benefit of formal or common law marriage, cohabitating couples in North Carolina who split up do not enjoy the protections or requirements of North Carolina divorce law.

Rights and Requirements of Divorce in North Carolina

There are certain legal requirements for married individuals who seek a divorce in North Carolina. Among them are that the parties must:

  • Identify and divide the couple’s marital property, assets, and debt
  • Provide for the support of their underage children, regardless of who the custodial parent is

There are certain protections under North Carolina divorce law, too. They include that:

  • The division of marital property must be equitable, or fair, to each party. The court will not allow a lopsided arrangement.
  • If either party can demonstrate that he or she was financially dependent on the other spouse, the court may require the other party to pay him or her spousal support, or alimony.
  • The court does not have to require both parents to pay the same amount in child support. Instead, it will consider the child’s needs and each parent’s relative abilities to pay support.
  • Either parent may assume custody of underage children. The court does not favor mothers over fathers.

When considering a petition for child custody, the law requires the judge to weigh who can provide a stable home for the child and best take care of their needs.

A Cohabitation Agreement Protects You Both

If you cohabitate in North Carolina, you do not necessarily have the same rights and protections during a split as married couples do. But you can establish them through a contractual agreement.

A cohabitation agreement can address a variety of issues. Most focus on setting rules for the couple’s division of property, expenses, and debts if the relationship dissolves. It might, for example, establish that one party will retain ownership of certain property, such as a cherished piece of artwork. It can specify an alimony payment from one party to the other and conditions for it to increase, decrease, continue, or end.

A cohabitation agreement is enforceable as long as it is not based on sexual services and is not egregiously unfair to one of the two parties. However, a cohabitation agreement cannot waive either party’s responsibilities to their biological child(ren) under age 18.

A couple may establish or amend a cohabitation agreement at any point in time as long as the parties agree.

Our experienced family law attorneys suggest that cohabitation agreements reflect North Carolina’s rules for equitable distribution of marital assets, which require that:

  • Assets acquired after you first moved in together but before you split up would be divided equitably between you.
  • Assets acquired before you lived together or that either of you received as a gift or inheritance while living together would be kept separate.

As your attorneys, we would work with you to develop an inventory of your current assets and debts and lead you through a point-by-point discussion of financial issues and options for inclusion in a cohabitation agreement. Then, we would suggest and discuss other issues you might like to address.

If you and your partner are in the process of splitting up and disagree about the division of property or other issues, you will each need to hire your own attorney. A single lawyer cannot ethically represent opposing parties.

If you were to engage us as your attorneys in a contentious split, we would focus on protecting your rights and interests while seeking to settle the disputes between you as efficiently as possible.

Contact a Raleigh, NC, Family Law Attorney

An unmarried couple in North Carolina has few legal protections if they break up. Even in a harmonious split, this can easily lead to strife, particularly around the division of assets. To protect your financial interests, it is essential to work with a family law attorney experienced with cohabitation agreements and equitable property division during separation and divorce.

The attorneys of Charles R. Ullman & Associates have the skill, experience, and compassion necessary to help you. Contact us today to schedule a confidential review of your case.


Charles Ullman & Associates provides you respected, experienced and knowledgeable divorce and family law attorneys. You can trust us to help you through the legal process efficiently and effectively so you can transition to the next phase of your life. Our community involvement reaches beyond charitable support of important causes. We launched our own movement in Fraternities4Family and provide scholarships to able students in need.