Couples decide to live together—known as “cohabiting”—for many reasons. Whether the reason is to save money by combining expenses or to try out living together before marrying, it’s important that both parties understand the strengths and limitations of cohabitation. It is also critical that both partners develop clear expectations for themselves and for the relationship.
Couples who decide to live together rather than marrying need to think about (and discuss) several issues. Most of us have known of someone who had a bad roommate. When a romantically involved couple decides to live together, they can expect to face the same issues roommates face, such as disputes over rent or utility payments, expectations of privacy, and even arguments over toothpaste tubes or toilet seats.
But romantic partners also face many additional issues because of the emotional bond between them. Many times, this bond can engender understanding; however, the close physical relationship can also cause a great divide to occur when arguments surface.
Moving in together can be an exciting time of new beginnings. Much like a newlywed couple, there are many decisions to be made, including where to live and how to decorate. But because living together lacks the protections available to formally wed spouses, it’s important that you address your expectations up front when it comes to property ownership, financial matters and support, and medical issues. Some couples also need to talk openly about kids, particularly those who already have children or who plan to have children while the couple is living together.
One of the first issues a couple should discuss is how they want to own property. Often, one or both parties already own some property, whether something tangible (like a house or a car) or something intangible (such as stocks or bonds). In the far majority of cases, property owned separately will remain separate, so if the couple wants to jointly own an asset, they will need to take specific steps to make that happen, such as by placing both names on a car title.
When married couples separate or divorce, they both have rights in their marital property. A spouse also has a right to a share of property under state law if the other spouse dies while they are married. This latter right is known as a right of “inheritance.”
A couple who lives together without being married does not have these same rights. Some tools are available to address these limitations if a couple wants to achieve a different result, such as entering into a cohabitation property agreement, titling property jointly, and executing valid estate documents (such as wills) that make their intentions clear. The validity of these tools depends on the law of the state where you live, so if you decide to use them, make sure you consult with an attorney licensed in your state.
Potential Partner Support Issues
When a couple gets married, they assume a duty to support one another. If they later separate or divorce, this sometimes results in one spouse paying spousal support (alimony) to the other spouse. Spousal support may be paid on a periodic basis (such as monthly), in a lump sum, or only until an event occurs (such as the passage of time or remarriage).
Couples who choose to live together rather than marrying do not have any duty to support one another, either during or after their relationship ends. This arrangement works fine for some couples. However, if one partner is quitting his or her job or school to become a homemaker or raise kids, the other may choose to assume a duty of support during the relationship or after it ends. This can be done by entering into a binding agreement of support. Cohabitation laws vary considerably on this issue from state to state, so make sure you consult with a licensed attorney in your state if you want to go this route.
Couples who want to live together need to make very deliberate decisions about how they handle their finances. Both parties need to be clear about how income and debt will be handled and who will pay each bill. Generally speaking, bank accounts should be kept separate, as should titles to assets. Each party should clearly track any gifts or loans made to the other. If you do not want to be considered liable for the other person’s debts, do not sign a contract with that person or cosign or guarantee a loan for him or her.
If you want your partner to be able to take over your finances if you become unable to handle them on your own, your strategy will be different. In such a circumstance, you can complete a Power of Attorney to give that person the power to handle all or only certain financial matters. To ensure this document meets your goals and will be honored, be sure to work with a licensed lawyer in your state.
All 50 states allow people to make certain decisions about their medical care in advance, including naming a person to make decisions for them if they cannot. The person named to make those decisions is called a “medical power of attorney.” If a married person does not name anyone as his or her medical power of attorney, his or her spouse usually has the right to make those decisions.
This general rule does not apply to unmarried couples living together. As a result, in a cohabitation relationship, difficult medical decisions will normally be made by a blood relative rather than a live-in partner. If this issue is important to you, it is critical that you execute a valid document naming your partner as your medical power of attorney.
Parental rights and responsibilities stem not from marriage but from parenthood. It is typically easy to know who the mother of a child is. However, the father is not always known. For this reason, most states include what is called a “presumption” of fatherhood, which applies in certain circumstances. For example, a man is often presumed to be the father of a child if he was married to the mother at the time of conception or birth.
Some people think that if a couple is living together when a child is born or conceived that both are presumed parents. This is not true. If a couple is not married, the identity of the father must be established. This is usually done in one of three ways:
- By listing the father on the birth certificate;
- By both parents stating under oath that the child is the father; or
- Through a legal action to establish fatherhood (known as a “paternity” case). If the father’s identity is not established, there is no obligation of child support, and there are no rights to custody or visitation.
Many of the issues presented by cohabitation can be dealt with effectively by working with an experienced lawyer licensed in your state. However, it is important to go into the relationship with your eyes wide open to avoid any potential misunderstandings.