Deciding to live together is a big step in a relationship. You make a commitment that feels similar to marriage. Unfortunately, you do not receive the automatic legal protections that you do through a marriage. For example, New York inheritance laws provide protections for each spouse that is not available to unmarried partners. In addition, divorce is governed by a body of laws that direct the distribution of assets, payment of financial support and allocation of debts — a process that does not apply to cohabiting couples. You can, however, protect yourself through estate planning tools, real property statutes and contract law.
Negotiate a cohabitation agreement
You form a financial partnership through your cohabitation in addition to your romantic relationship. Just as you would not conduct a business transaction without a contract, you should not commingle assets with your life partner without negotiating a written agreement. A cohabitation agreement is similar to a prenuptial agreement. The contract protects your assets and your financial security should you break up or your partner die. Terms of your contract may address:
Division of personal property you acquired during your relationship
Satisfaction of the debts you incurred during your relationship
Rights to your residential lease
Allocation of real estate equity accrued during the relationship
Return on investment you made in real property or a business
Continued financial support
Buy property as joint tenants with right of survivorship
The manner in which your real property is deeded determines conveyance rights of each owner. Property deeded as joint tenants with right of survivorship gives you and your partner full interest in the entire property — meaning you receive full ownership in the property if your partner dies.
Use estate planning tools
If you die without leaving a last will and testament, succession laws determine which relative receives your property. You can protect your partner by drafting clear provisions that bequeath your assets to each other. In addition, you can transfer ownership of your assets to a trust that names your partner as a beneficiary upon your death.