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Is Alimony Restricted to Traditional Marriage Relationships?

Thirteen U.S. states recognize traditional common law marriages between a man and woman. Utah is one of those states.

The Johnson Case

Neldon and Ina Johnson lived together in Utah for 37 years and held themselves out to third parties as a married couple with all of the typical trappings: kids, joint assets, real estate, and the same last name. Because of this, when the couple split, they were permitted to receive a legal divorce in Utah courts.

Ultimately, Ina Johnson had to seek the assistance of Utah courts to enforce the couple's 2001 property settlement agreement, disposing of $2.8 million in the couple's property and ordering Neldon Johnson to pay her $8,333 per month in alimony. Neldon Johnson sought to challenge Utah courts' jurisdiction over his case and the couple's divorce decree, insisting his divorce was invalid because he lacked the prerequisite legal marriage. Neldon Johnson refused to pay alimony and launched legal challenges to his divorce. Time and again, Neldon Johnson met defeat when the Utah courts denied his motions and appeals and affirmed jurisdiction over the matter and validity of the couple's divorce.

Thus, although a risky and costly proposition, Ina Johnson's experience and Utah case precedent establishes that alimony is a potential and viable remedy for common law wives facing divorce when their non-traditional marriages end. However, the Johnson case is venued in and limited to Utah.

New Jersey Law

On the other hand, New Jersey refuses to grant unmarried cohabitants in common law relationships the same levels of protections afforded their married counterparts. New Jersey's laws do not provide unmarried couples with many of the same rights as married couples. In fact, New Jersey's laws treat the two pairs in markedly different manners.

New Jersey spouses can seek alimony and equitable distribution of marital property upon divorce, but unmarried partners in common law relationships are denied access to alimony and equitable distribution and are instructed to pursue common law recoveries instead. New Jersey's legal framework definitively protects only married spouses and steadfastly refuses to recognize and foster non-traditional unmarried couples' living arrangements.

Because family law is state-specific, the recognition of unmarried cohabitating couples, as well as their rights and protections in relationships, including recoveries and remedies upon splits to claims such as alimony, are dependent on the jurisdiction in which the couple resides.