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Marriage vs. Cohabitation

Marriage may not be right for everyone. Some couples may want to avoid the formalities involved with legal marriage. Others may want to keep their financial affairs and debt burdens separate. Whatever the case may be, some couples choose to live together without the benefit of a traditional legal marriage. There are, however, differences between marriage and cohabitation relationships, and they are treated differently under the law.

Below, you'll find explanations of a number of these differences, including the privileges and responsibilities of each type of relationship.

Marriage vs. Cohabitation: A Comparison


COHABITATION (Living Together)

Marriage requirements — which vary from state to state — include a license, a waiting period, blood tests, minimum ages, a ceremony officiated by a clergyperson or an officer of the court, and witnesses.

Cohabitation can be entered into any time, by people of any age and any gender, with no formal requirements.

Marriage must be ended by a formal, legal divorce or annulment process that can be costly, time consuming, complicated, and emotionally draining.

Cohabitation can usually be ended simply and informally upon the agreement of the parties. Often, however, the emotional costs are the same as or similar to those experienced at the end of a marriage.

Divorcing spouses have the obligation to divide their property by legally prescribed methods.

At the end of a cohabitation relationship, the parties can usually divide property however they wish. However, the absence of legal guidelines may create even more conflict.

A higher-wage-earning spouse may have the obligation to provide financial support for the other spouse upon separation or divorce.

Couples who live together and then split up usually do not incur the obligation to support each other after the break-up, unless they have entered into a contract providing otherwise. While this may seem like a boon to the supporting partner, a partner who has become accustomed to being supported may face unexpected financial hardship after the split.

If one spouse becomes ill or incompetent, the other spouse generally has the right to make decisions on the ill spouse's behalf, on issues including health care and finances.

No matter how close the bond or how long the relationship has existed, a cohabitant may need to defer to immediate family members when it comes to making decisions for an ill or incompetent unmarried partner, unless a general power of attorney or health care power of attorney give that authority to the cohabitating partner.

When one spouse dies, the other spouse has the legal right to inherit a portion of the deceased spouse's estate.

When one cohabitant dies, his or her property will pass to whomever is named in the will or, if there is no will, to family members according to state laws. The surviving partner has no claim to the estate unless he or she was named in the deceased partner's will.

Children born during the marriage are presumed to be the offspring of the husband and wife.

The father of a child born to unmarried cohabitants is not entitled to a legal presumption of paternity, and may have to establish his paternity through blood tests and a legal action.

Children born to married couples must be financially supported during the marriage.

The male in a cohabitating partnership does not incur an immediate legal obligation to support children born during the cohabitation, but may do so voluntarily (and MUST do so if paternity is established).

After separation or divorce, the non-custodial parent generally is legally obligated to help financially support the children of the marriage.

After a cohabitating relationship ends, the non-custodial parent has the same legal obligation to support his or her children as legally separated or divorced parents, if parentage has been established.

Figuring Out Marriage vs. Cohabitation in Your Life? Get Legal Answers Today

Marriage impacts many different kinds of legal rights. Who inherits your property when you die, whether you can make medical decisions for an incapacitated partner, and whether you must pay to support someone after a breakup are all seriously impacted by your marital status. A qualified family law attorney can help you work out how marriage or cohabitation may impact your rights.

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