STEUBENVILLE - The number of marriage applications filed in Jefferson County has decreased by 50 percent during the past 20 years.
According to the Jefferson County Probate Court, in the past 20 years, marriage applications peaked at 738 during 1995. The lowest number in the past two decades was 369 in 2010, a 50 percent decrease since 1995. There were 386 marriage applications in 2013, according to probate court.
Mary Nash, chief deputy probate court clerk, said the office can go for days without a couple coming in for a marriage application.
LEGAL ADVICE — Attorney Costa Mastros reviews files in his law office. Mastros said unmarried couples need to consider how joint property will be split if the couple separates. He said unmarried couples separating can be more legally difficult than the divorce of a married couple. -- Mark Law
"Some weeks, there will only be one. Other weeks there could be five. It all depends," she said.
But there are big marriage days, such as Valentine's Day, that still bring out people wanting to get marriage applications.
Nash said she believes most people coming in for a marriage application are middle aged. She added the office had two clerks handling the marriage applications in the 1970s and 1980s.
The number of divorces and marriage dissolutions also have shown a downward trend.
The Jefferson County Clerk of Courts office reported there were 385 divorces and dissolutions filed in 1995. The number dropped to 247 in 2013, a nearly 36 percent decrease.
The lack of marriages also can be seen in the increase in paternity cases filed in juvenile court.
Joe Colabella, probate/juvenile court administrator, said there have been 2,216 paternity cases filed with the court since 2006. He said the number of paternity cases today has doubled since the number filed in 2006.
"Paternity cases are way up. From 2006, the numbers are staggering," Colabella said.
With those sobering numbers in mind, some couples might decide it is just better to live together. Experts warn there could be legal ramifications to that decision if things don't work out, whether that involves the purchase of a house or car together or deciding to have a child together.
Attorney Costa Mastros said he has had only one woman with the foresight to come into his office and seek advice about buying a house with the man she was living with. She wanted to protect herself in the event the couple broke up, he said.
"I put together an agreement that had a plan on how the property would be disposed if the relationship ended," he said.
Mastros said unmarried couples breaking up face the same legal problems as a married couple going through a divorce or dissolution.
One such action that can be filed in court is when an unmarried couple uses joint funds to make a purchase.
An example, Mastros said, could involve a woman who didn't have the credit needed to purchase a car and the man in relationship had the car titled in his name while she was making payments. If the relationship was to end, the man would be able to keep the car titled in his name even though the woman made the payments. Under a partition action, the car would have to be sold to allow the debt to be paid off.
Mastros said the partition action is filed in court only after other attempts to resolve the issue have failed.
A replevin action is taken in court to have a judge force the man or the woman in a relationship to give back property taken after the two part ways, Mastros said. The property then is sold and proceeds split. A conversion claim could be taken to get fair market value for the property and others damages deemed just by a judge.
Other issues can pop up when an unmarried couple decides to have a child together.
Mastros said juvenile court will determine custody and visitation rights, child support, health insurance for the child and dependency,
"You could theoretically have multiple lawsuits in two different courts if it is not a good situation between the two people in a relationship that has ended. There will be legal fees in two different courts. It could become expensive if they don't have the foresight to deal with the issues beforehand," he said.
Mastros said most of the people in those situations are young, usually between the ages of 18 and 25.
Mastros said he gets more calls asking for legal help from unmarried couples than married couples going through a divorce or dissolution.
"Those are so prevalent," he said. "It is a rosy life for them, and then responsibility sets in and they don't think about it. Living together unmarried is hard work, just like for married couples. They don't think of the ramifications. They still have to go to court to get out of the relationship."
Mastros said he doesn't have an answer to why so many couples live together and don't get married. He noted unmarried couples tend to give up more quickly on a relationship than a married couple.
"I had one client who said if it would have been as hard to get married as it is to get divorced, he wouldn't have gotten married," he said.
Mastros said older women who are in an unmarried relationship tend to keep assets separate. He said older couples living together tend to have a joint checking account to pay bills but keep other assets separate, and younger couple tend to comingle assets that are more difficult to separate.
Probate/Juvenile Judge Sam Kerr and Juvenile Court Magistrate Frank Noble spend several days each week on the bench just hearing parentage cases when couples start fighting over out-of-wedlock children.
"It is directly related to the lack of marriages. It is nationwide, it isn't just here," Kerr said.
He noted many of the unmarried parents today grew up in either a one-parent home or a home with an unmarried couple.
"Two-parent married families are becoming a thing of the past," Kerr said.
He added there are young parents today who are irresponsible and can't handle parenthood, and it is often the grandparents who step up.
"Thank God for the grandparents. They take a lot of these kids in," he said.