Cohabitation: Background and Legal Issues

Cohabitation is when two adult partners live together but aren't married. Cohabitation was one of the only options for same-sex couples before ObergefellThis was the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriages.

Society has become more accepting of cohabitation. Yet, it's still important to know possible legal issues. Cohabitation applies to opposite-sex and same-sex couples alike.

This article provides a brief overview of living together without getting married.

Cohabitation: A Brief Background

Traditionally, the law hasn't favored individuals living together outside marriage. Some religions disapprove of couples living together outside marriage. Law and religion were historically connected, and traditional marriage was the basis of most laws governing joint property and child custody. But over the past 40 years, American laws in the area of cohabitation have changed drastically.

Cohabitation has increased during this time. Generally, the number of cohabitating couples has increased since the 1980s. Premarital cohabitation is becoming more common among young adults as a demographic trend. But, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there was an increase in the number of American cohabitors between 2009 and 2010 in all age groups. Married women and men try the cohabitation experience before marriage. Research has shown demographic differences in cohabitation rates, with a higher prevalence among younger age groups.

Cohabitation Research

Researchers such as Larry Bumpass and Pamela Smock have studied cohabitation. They studied its impact on marriage rates and marital dissolution. Sociologists, such as Wendy D. Manning, Kathleen Kiernan, and Arland Thornton, have also examined its effects on people and society.

The National Survey of Family Growth shows that more than two-thirds of women ages 15-44 cohabit before their first marriage. Similar trends have been observed in Canada, Australia, Norway, and Sweden.

One study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family surveyed several respondents and concluded that cohabiting relationships are less stable. It also found that they are more likely to dissolve than marriages. Another study published in the journal Population Studies found the same, concluding that dissolution is more likely within a short period of time than those in their first marriages.

Cohabiting has become a normative part of the life course for many young adults. Yet, cohabiting couples remain a small number compared with married couples. For instance, in New York and Washington, D.C., cohabitors only make up a small proportion of the population.

Cohabiting partners can enjoy the emotional and financial support of living together. They may also face legal and financial challenges. Knowing the pros and cons of this type of living arrangement is essential before moving in with your partner.

Legal Pros and Cons of Cohabitation

In some respects, unmarried cohabitation today can be beneficial from a legal standpoint. Unmarried partners may define the terms of their relationship. They can do this without being bound by marriage laws. Marriage laws can sometimes restrict the marriage relationship. After a breakup, cohabitants don't need to follow strict procedures to exit.

American unmarried couples can avoid the so-called "marriage tax" in the Internal Revenue Code. The IRC provides a greater tax rate for unmarried couples than for two unmarried individuals. Yet, some are trying to end this penalty.

But, unmarried cohabitants don't enjoy the same rights as married people, especially concerning property acquired during a relationship. Marital property laws don't apply to unmarried couples the way they do to married couples even those in long-term relationships.

Children of Cohabitating Parents

In the past, children of unmarried couples born out of wedlock were "illegitimate." They weren't afforded the same legal rights as children of married couples. These laws have changed since the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The marital status of parents is no longer an issue. The Supreme Court found in 1968 that treating illegitimate children differently was unconstitutional. It violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Cohabitating Family Relationships

Cohabiting relationships can involve childbearing and family formation, like for married couples. Cohabiting couples do not have the same legal protections and benefits as marriage. They might not have the same rights to property or health insurance. This may affect your family life or family structure in different ways.

Cohabitation Contracts

Some nonmarital couples who live together choose to enter into "living together contracts." These contracts provide rights to both parties, like rights enjoyed by married couples. Many family law experts recommend that unmarried cohabitants enter into such arrangements.

These contracts can protect both partners. They can be especially helpful when there are significant assets or debts. Yet, cohabitation agreements may be invalid in some states, especially if sex is a condition of the contract.

Questions About Cohabitation? Ask an Attorney

Cohabitation in the United States has become more common among young adults. This is sometimes the first union formation before marriage.

Talk to a lawyer today if you have questions about your living situation. A skilled attorney can look at the facts of your specific case. They can give you helpful legal guidance.

Talking to a family law attorney and getting legal advice is a good idea.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • You may want to consider creating powers of attorney or prenup agreements
  • Getting an attorney’s advice is a good idea if there are children or substantial property involved
  • An attorney can help you responsibly enter and exit cohabitation

Get tailored advice about property, finances, and child custody when living together. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Living with a partner is an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Would you like to add your partner to your will? Also, consider creating a power of attorney so your partner can access your financial accounts and bills. A health care directive is necessary if you want your partner to make your medical decisions if you ever become incapacitated.

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