4 Ways Millennials are Making Us Rethink the California Family Law System

We all hear about how millennials are changing the world. Millennials are changing the way we live in countless ways – everything from how and where we find our news to how we get around and what type of entertainment we value.

But what about relationship? Are they changing that too? Stats say yes. They aren’t getting married as often or as young. What does that mean for the legal system? A lot.

  1. Less marriage, more cohabitation: Recently released data shows that Millennials are getting married later and, in growing numbers, may not get married at all, according to a statistical study by Olin College Professor of Computer Science Allen Downey. More and more millennials are cohabitating with a partner, pooling assets but opting out of marriage. In California we do not have any form of “common law” marriage. That means that if two people love and live together for several years and commingle some or all of their accounts and/or assets — upon separation they are not treated as married, the family codes do not apply to them and there is no duty to support the other (except in rare circumstances where a Cohabitation Agreement has been entered into or there is another enforceable contract). By contrast, married folks have a whole legal system devoted to helping them achieve fairness while uncoupling. State and local laws ensure that assets are equalized, income is shared and finances are transparent. When unmarried couples separate they are having to be much more creative with uncoupling in a way that makes sense to them. They are employing financial planners, trusted friends and mediators to help them sort out finances. But what happens if there is an ensuing disagreement? Enter the archaic, expensive and litigation focused civil system which treats unmarried former couples as business or real estate partners (at best). As Family Law practitioners, we need to consider shifting the Family Code so that we can assist and ensure that unmarried couples are afforded an equitable path of dispute resolution or risk clogging up the civil courts (clearly an inappropriate venue) with mountains of domestic disputes.
  2. Traditional legal services are out. Unbundled services are in: If they can do it on their own, they will –and why not?? There are sites to help us obtain mortgages, prepare our own taxes, manage our finances and learn just about anything with the guidance of experts. Millennials (often) feel the same way about law. Family Law is not ‘brain surgery’ but it can be complicated, is most often procedural and heavily form driven. Millennials are more and more turning to outside-the-box methods of dispute resolution as their relationships and marriages end — rejecting the standard retainer and billable hour. We’ve got to adapt or we’ll get left behind.
  3. Prenups protecting intellectual property: Millennials are getting older and richer. They are embracing Prenuptial Agreements and/or Cohabitation Agreements more than the Gen X’ers before them. But that doesn’t mean all Prenups are created equal. Unlike the Agreements that came before (primarily addressing support and property in the case of separation), they are interested in protecting privacy (intimate details about their lives, sexy videos and/or pictures etc) and intellectual property such as songs, ideas for apps, business ideas, software and films. What I find most interesting is their desire to protect stuff and ideas for things that are not yet in existence (and might not ever be).
  4. The modern (“alternative”) family: Same-sex marriage laws and statutes that address multi-parents (under certain limited circumstances) are certainly a good start to updating the Family Law system to protect millennials and their families. As millennials explore with more types of relationships (co-parenting outside of marriage or even a romantic relationship, open relationships and unmarried long term relationships), ‘partnership’ is changing and our laws will need to as well.

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