Divorce Rate Drops, But Children Still At-Risk

Posted September 22, 2011 in Your Family & The Law by David Baarlaer

Believe it or not, in Florida it’s a crime for an unwed couple to live together and have an intimate relationship. Other states have similar laws. Even more odd, perhaps, is that some lawmakers want to keep the laws on the books to "save marriage." A new study on cohabitation and divorce may show that they may not be too far off track.

  • A new study shows a drop in divorce rates for couples with children
  • However, children of cohabiting parents are at risk for many serious problems
  • Cohabiting parents can take steps to protect their children’s well-being

Divorce Is No Longer the Biggest Threat to Children

For years, divorce has been the number one threat to the well-being of the parents’ children. Not so anymore.

In fact, a new study released by the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values shows that divorce among married parents has decreased nearly to the level before the divorce boom of the 1970’s and ’80’s – statistics borne out by a 2009 US Census report. While that’s encouraging to some, the study shows something more alarming. Today, parental breakups of cohabiting, unmarried parents pose the biggest threat to the well-being of the children.

So, whether or not you agree with the idea that state laws should meddle with personal relationships and living arrangements, there may be legitimate concerns about cohabiting couples.

The Downside of Cohabitation

Cohabitation has been increasing for the past two decades, with a sharp spike in 2009-2010, according to another Census report (PDF). And, while it certainly can be argued that cohabitation works well for many couples, like younger couples living on modest incomes, it usually doesn’t work out so well for the couples’ children. Not all the time, of course. Brad Wilcox, the author of the new report, points out that "many kids in cohabiting families do just fine."

But many don’t. According to the study, cohabitation is now the biggest threat to the emotional and physical well-being of children born to unwed parents. The statistics are unsettling:

  • Twenty-four percent of all children born today are born to unwed, cohabiting parents
  • The chances of cohabiting parents breaking up is 170 percent higher than the chances of married couples divorcing
  • It’s more likely for children living with cohabiting adults, such as a mother and a boyfriend, to suffer from physical, sexual or emotional abuse
  • These children have higher chances of abusing drugs and failing at school than children living with their married parents

So, are lawmakers on the right track when they want to keep anti-cohabitation laws on the books. Maybe, at least as far as children are concerned. Karen M. Holman"While marriage is no silver bullet for a happily ever after," says family law lawyer Karen M. Holman, "the decision to marry makes (for many) walking away from children an ‘unthinkable.’ When parents cohabit, while they’ve made a conscious decision to be together, they’ve also left themselves an ‘easy out.’ The stats clearly indicate that children seem to be more negatively impacted by the ‘easy out’ of cohabitation than the process of divorce."

Cohabiting Responsibly

Anyone in a cohabitation relationship can protect themselves by working out a cohabitation agreement outlining everything from who pays for what while living together, to who gets what in the case the couple breaks up. When children are involved, it’s even more important to come up with a plan for their care.

Remember, whether married, divorced or living together, parents have a legal responsibility to provide financial support for their children until they become adults (usually 18 years old) or until they’re emancipated. So, you may be able to simply walk away from your live-in partner, but you can’t walk away from your child.

With a parenting agreement or parenting plan, you and your partner can answer a lot of the "what ifs" in the case of a breakup, such as custody or "time-sharing," visitation schedules, child support and how the child’s education, healthcare and religious needs will be met.

Most of the time, matters like custody, support and visitation aren’t legally enforceable unless they’ve been decided by a court order. But, you and your partner can ask a court to make your parenting plan a court order, giving you both enforceable legal rights when it comes to your child. An attorney can help you write a plan that gives the best possible protection for your child, as well as you and your partner.

Dave Baarlaer writes for Lawyers.com

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