Family Law

Alternatives to Traditional Marriage

By Joseph Pandolfi, Retired Judge
Learn more about the alternatives to traditional marriage.

Traditional Marriage Is No Longer the Only Game in Town

Traditional marriage hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still alive and well, available to those who want it, assuming they’re able to meet their state’s legal requirements.

However, cultural changes over the years have led to varying viewpoints as to what should constitute a legal union between two people. Some saw traditional marriage as too restrictive, preferring a partnership that may be just as loving, but less structured. Others longed for that structure, as well as legal recognition of their commitment to each other, but were unable to achieve it because their relationship didn’t fit existing statutory definitions.

This conceptual shift has resulted in both formal and informal changes in how couples are able to live in today’s society. Let’s review some of these alternatives to traditional marriage.


This is probably the most unstructured vehicle for a couple. The two people involved simply choose to live together, with no legal “tag” attached to their arrangement. As such, neither partner has any of the rights or obligations of marriage. If things don’t work out, they can simply walk away. Of course, few things in life are that uncomplicated, particularly if your relationship ends. For example, if you have children, your unmarried status isn’t going to stop a court from addressing issues of custody, visitation (parenting time), and child support, if you can’t resolve them yourselves. Likewise, if you accumulated property (personal property or real estate) during your time together, your state’s property ownership laws will control how that property gets divided if you split up. If you can’t work this out, you’ll probably end up in court, asking a judge to make the decision for you.

Because of the possible problems inherent in any relationship, couples who choose to cohabitate sometimes opt for “cohabitation agreements.” Basically, this is a legal contract between a couple that addresses how the types of issues referenced above will be resolved if the relationship ends. These are very similar to prenuptial agreements, but for unmarried couples.

Common Law Marriage

In these relationships, couples shun the traditional marriage route, choosing to live together without a marriage certificate, but they want to be viewed as married. In fact, the key to a legal common law marriage is the intent to be considered a married couple. Additionally, you’re going to have to meet your state’s requirements for traditional marriage. For example, you must be:

  • of legal age to marry
  • be of sound mind (have the mental capacity to know what you’re doing), and
  • not be married to anyone else.

Although it was once widely recognized, today common law marriage is only valid in a handful of states. If you’re in a valid common law marriage, you will have the same rights and responsibilities of a traditionally married couple. Additionally, the only way to legally end the relationship is through divorce.

Government Attempts to Address Change

The changing societal landscape over the last 15-20 years prompted many states to address the status of relationships, in particular those partnerships between same-sex couples. The desire to give same-sex couples at least some of the same rights and benefits that opposite-sex couples receive through marriage led to the creation of domestic partnerships and civil unions.

Domestic Partnerships

Laws providing for domestic partnerships came about in an effort to provide unmarried couples in committed relationships with at least some of the benefits enjoyed by married couples. They were meant to address numerous issues, including:

  • an individual being able to have coverage on a partner’s health insurance plan
  • entitlement to certain inheritance benefits, and
  • the ability to make medical decisions for a partner.

Acquiring domestic partnership status normally involves registering with the appropriate legal entity (state, municipality, or employer). However, the conferred benefits may vary from one entity to the next. For example, in California, registering in a domestic partnership provides all the same state rights and benefits traditional spouses receive. Other states may not be as inclusive.

Additionally, requirements may differ among the various government entities. Again using California as an example, domestic partnerships aren’t available for opposite-sex couples, unless at least one partner is age 62 or over.

Civil Unions

Civil unions are similar to domestic partnerships in terms of providing certain benefits to unmarried couples living in committed relationships. Civil unions, however, are not available in as many states as domestic partnerships are.

The primary purpose of civil unions was to address the issue of same-sex relationships. In fact, in New Jersey, the law establishing civil unions specifically indicates that the reason for its enactment is to extend to same-sex couples the rights and benefits enjoyed by married heterosexual couples.

Entering into a civil union may require applying for a license, similar to the process seen in traditional marriages.

How Viable Are Domestic Partnerships and Civil Unions Today?

As a practical matter, domestic partnerships and civil unions aren’t as relevant as they once were. This is primarily due to the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision which legalized same-sex marriage. Because the ruling is binding on all states, it obviated the need for alternatives to traditional marriage in many instances.

That said, a number of states that enacted domestic partnership and civil union laws have continued to maintain them. (However, a few states, including Connecticut dispensed with civil unions and converted existing ones to marriages after the 2015 Supreme Court decision.) The fact is, some people still prefer not to marry and are comfortable with the benefits these alternatives offer.

However, couples who are considering marriage alternatives should be mindful that domestic partnerships and civil unions will not provide access to federal entitlements, such as immigration, Social Security, or federal tax benefits. Simply put, the federal government does not recognize domestic partnerships or civil unions for purposes of conferring any federal marital benefits.

You should also note that a domestic partnership or civil union entered into in one state might not be recognized by other states. So if you move, you may want to check with a local family law attorney to determine whether your new state will acknowledge the legal status of your relationship.

This article is an overview of alternatives to traditional marriage. For more detailed information on this topic in your state, consider consulting a local divorce attorney.

Have a family law question?
Get answers from local attorneys.
It's free and easy.
Ask a Lawyer

Get Professional Help

Find a Family Law lawyer
Practice Area:
Zip Code:
How It Works
  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Connect with local attorneys

Talk to a Family Lawyer.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you