Can Cohabitating Partners Be Considered Legal Parents?

Although it has been traditionally frowned upon in many circles, cohabitation has become increasingly common in the Western world. In the United States, it is now considered completely normal to be unmarried yet live with a romantic partner. Most people don’t consider it a long-term alternative to marriage since most cohabiting partners either split up or marry within a couple of years, but most couples find themselves living together at some point during their relationship. Naturally, this leads to some questionable legal issues, particularly when these unmarried couples have children together.

Traditionally, two people would be legally married before they have children, and the legality of their status as parents would never be called into question. Today, 22 percent of children are born to unwed couples, and that number is on the rise. The Office for National Statistics in Great Britain has even predicted that most children will be born out of wedlock by 2016. Considering these alarming numbers, it’s important to take a look at the legality of cohabiting partners as legal parents.

Unmarried Biological Parents as Legal Guardians

In the United States, a child born to an unmarried couple is the legal responsibility of both parents. However, in the case of cohabiting partners, a paternity test is required to determine the rights and responsibilities of the father. In other words, cohabiting partners can legally be parents, but they still don’t have the same legal responsibilities as married couples. For example, when a married couple gets a divorce, child custody must be divided in a specific way, and both the mother and the father are able to contest their rights in court. When cohabiting couples decide to split up, the father has no legal financial responsibilities when it comes to raising the children.

When There is No Biological Relation to the Children

The laws regarding cohabiting partners with children usually only apply to biological children. In many cases, two partners ends up caring for children that are biologically related to only one of them. In these situations, the unrelated adult usually has no parental rights, but they can still become the legal guardian of their partner’s children through adoption or if the non-custodial parent is either deceased or deemed unfit or guilty of abandonment in a court of law.

The process of gaining custody of an unrelated child is cumbersome, but it can be very important. If something were to happen to the biological parent, the partner may want to take the time to go through the adoption process and become the legal guardian of the couple’s children. Without going through the adoption process, the biological parent maintains custody of the children, should the couple become separated.

One thing that becomes clear when dealing with the issues of unmarried couples raising children is that while cohabitation may appear to be similar to marriage, it is obviously not the same. Unmarried partners do not have the same level of commitment to each other or their children, even when they live together. They may legally be parents, but that legality only lasts for as long as they are together.

Kyle Brand is a freelance legal blogger and writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. Kyle recommends that those who need assistance with asbestos litigation visit Shrader Law.