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Cohabitation and the Law: Tips and Warnings

Even though a couple may not decide to get married, living together without a legal union may still have its own hardships. A couple living together presumably will be sharing the cost of rent, utilities, food, and other daily expenses. There are also intangibles when two or more people share a space, such as cultural preferences and personal hygiene. It's important to keep in mind the following dos and don'ts before becoming cohabitants with your significant other.

This article addresses cohabitation, the law, and what you should do if you are considering cohabitating with your significant other.

Cohabitation and the Law: What You Should Do

  • Consider entering into a cohabitation agreement before moving in together. It can set the ground rules for financial and other arrangements and may prevent a lot of headaches if the relationship doesn't last.
  • Hold title to any major purchases in the name of the person(s) paying for it. If you buy a car with your own down payment and make all the monthly payments yourself, the car should be in your name only. Joint purchases, however, should be in the names of both parties.
  • Keep finances separate if you want to avoid heated disputes in the event the relationship terminates.
  • Keep accurate records of your financial contributions to any property held by your partner.
  • Write "gift" or "loan" on checks written to your partner if you want to negate any possible suggestion that you have been supporting them, which is an issue that can arise in a post-break-up "palimony" lawsuit. Palimony is similar to alimony, where one partner must pay the other partner after breaking up, except these ex-partners were never married.
  • Remember that a never-married parent has the same child support obligations as a once-married parent.

Cohabitation: What to Avoid

  • Never commingle your money by opening joint accounts, incurring joint debts, or making joint purchases if you want to avoid legal complications and the possibility of a "palimony" suit for the support of your partner after a split.
  • Avoid holding title to major purchases in your partner's name alone if you are both paying for that property, even if they orally agree that the house or car belongs to both of you. The deed or title is more convincing evidence than one partner's allegation of a spoken promise.
  • Be cautious about co-signing or guaranteeing debts that are incurred by your partner unless you intend to be equally responsible for paying them back, even if you should split up.
  • Remain financially independent of your partner so that you can support yourself in the future. Whereas divorced spouses may have the legal obligation to support each other, especially if one gave up a career to take care of the home and children, the same is not true of former cohabitants. Either keep up your skills and contacts in the job market or consider a written agreement setting forth your partner's legal obligation to help support you if the relationship ends.
  • Avoid holding yourselves out to the public as a married couple or using the same last name, even casually, if you want to avoid the legal complications of a "palimony" suit or the potential for common-law-marriage status should the relationship end.

For more information on how to protect your rights as a cohabitant, see FindLaw's Cohabitation Agreements page.

Get Professional Help Understanding Cohabitation and the Law

While couples may choose not to get married based on concerns over legal obligations, cohabitation can also give rise to certain legal obligations and disputes, especially as it relates to property ownership. Depending on your state, cohabitation could also raise questions about common-law marriage.

Before making any decisions, it may help to sit down with a family law attorney who can answer your questions and also advise you of ways to protect your interests.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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