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Disputing money & property

Without Marriage

In Wisconsin

Wisconsin laws on cohabitation, Watts cases & domestic partnership

Wisconsin common law marriage: cohabitation & Watts cases

The concept of common law marriage is not recognized in the state of Wisconsin. It does not matter how long a couple has been cohabitating, their relationship is not recognized as a legal marriage. A couple in a cohabitant relationship in Wisconsin looking to legally divide their property will need to file what has generally become known as a Watts case.

Watts cases in Wisconsin?

Such cases are known as Watts cases in reference to the parties in a landmark 1987 case involving a cohabitating couple that separated after 12 years. Watts cases do not regard the cohabitant relationship as a marriage, but they provide a similar means of resolving disputes over money and property. Unlike divorces, Watts cases are civil actions and do not address child placement or spousal support issues.

Are you legally married after living together for 7 years in Wisconsin?

No. Unlike some states, Wisconsin does not recognize a cohabitation relationship as a marriage—regardless of how long a couple has been cohabitating. When the Wisconsin Legislature abolished the criminal sanction for cohabitation in 1983, it made it clear in Section 944.01 that this should not be interpreted as an implicit approval of such relationships. Interestingly, Wisconsin was a common law marriage state until it was abolished in 1917.

What is a domestic partner in Wisconsin?

The term “domestic partner relationship” refers to two types of domestic partnership—one definition was created for the non-marital relationships of state employee for the purpose of establishing eligibility for insurance coverage; the other definition was created for same-sex relationships for the purpose of establishing legal rights to property, inheritances and other financial matters, as well as providing a framework for the dissolution of such partnerships.

Are there any Wisconsin cohabitation laws?

No. Although the state used to have criminal penalties for cohabitation, these were abolished in 1983. Under current Wisconsin law, the disputes that arise between cohabitating couples over property and debts when terminating their relationships are typically adjudicated by what is known as an unjust enrichment claim, which basically means that one party should not be unjustly enriched as a result of the breakup. Both parties need to present evidence of their stake in whatever is being disputed.

References: Title, intent and construction of chs. 765 to 768. Wisconsin State Legislature: 765.001 (2024). |

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