So you’ve been dating for a while and you’re ready to take the next step…no, not the BIG PLUNGE. Marriage is DEFINITELY on your mind but first you want to take the relationship on a test run by living together. Well, you’re not alone—according to a recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics, 48% of women reported that they lived with their partner before marriage. Despite most couples having long-term relationship intentions, not all cohabitants stay together and living together doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be walking down the aisle. In fact, within three years of cohabitating, 27% of couples break up.
Couples who cohabitate face many of the same big decisions that confront married couples, like whose couch they should keep, what color to paint the kitchen, or who pays what bills. While people fondly refer to cohabitation as “playing house” with couples often comporting themselves like their married counterparts, non-married cohabitants do not enjoy the same legal protections afforded married couples. Since cohabitants essentially merge their lives, money, assets, and property, it can be difficult to figure out who gets what if the couple calls it quits. The lack of any legal protection or guidance on the distribution of property after cohabitants break up is why you should have a cohabitation agreement.
What Is A Cohabitation Agreement?
A cohabitation agreement, also known as a Domestic Partnership Agreement, is a legally binding contract that can protect the interests of cohabitants in the event of a break up. Through a cohabitation agreement, a couple can protect any assets or liabilities incurred throughout their relationship and can provide an enforcement mechanism to ensure that promises about financial support and obligations made between the couple are kept. In essence, a cohabitation agreement functions much like a prenuptial agreement.
What Does A Cohabitation Agreement Cover?
Unfortunately, you cannot cover all domestic issues with a cohabitation agreement—most notably, any promises regarding child support or custody contained in a cohabitation agreement are non-binding. Apart from this limitation, cohabitation agreements can cover a wide variety of matters. At their heart, cohabitation agreements are meant to provide some form of reassurance or security by providing a means for cohabitants to enforce the promises and obligations between one another. Through a cohabitation agreement, couples can:
Define their relationship—since a cohabitation agreement is a legal document, utilizing one allows couples, who would not otherwise have any recognizable legal relationship, to create an easily identifiable contractual relationship.
Define their financial roles and responsibilities—through a cohabitation agreement, couples can clarify any ambiguity surrounding financial and household obligations. This includes defining obligations about finical support in the event the couple breaks up as well as handling the payment of debts incurred during the relationship.
Divide jointly held property—unlike married couples who gain inherit property rights from their union, unmarried cohabitants do not have the same vested property interests. Couples can use cohabitation agreements to avoid the awkwardness of trying to figure out who gets to keep the apartment, car, or the family pet after a break-up.
Appoint a health care proxy—while married spouses presumptively have the right to make medical decisions on behalf of their significant other, unmarried couples do not. Through a cohabitation agreement, unmarried cohabitants can appoint each other as their health care proxy and endow them with the authority to make decisions about medical care and treatment.
How Can Hiring An Attorney Help?
It is in your best interest to hire an attorney to draft a cohabitation agreement. Remember, a cohabitation agreement is a contract, and to be enforceable it must adhere to the contract laws of your particular state. Having an attorney there to guide you and your mate through the process is beneficial because it will help avoid later claims of unfairness or duress that could potentially void the agreement. The best practice would be for both you and your non-married mate to retain separate counsel, well-versed in the laws effecting non-marital cohabitation, and to jointly negotiate the terms of the agreement.