Marriage vs. Cohabitation

There are differences between marriage and cohabitation relationships, and they are treated differently under the law.

Marriage isn't 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, some couples choose to live together without the benefit of a traditional legal marriage. 

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

Marriage vs. Cohabitation: A Comparison


Cohabitation (Living Together)

Marriage requirements vary from state to state. They include a license, a waiting period, blood tests, and minimum ages. A marriage ceremony is officiated by a member of the clergy or an officer of the court and has witnesses.

Cohabitation can start at any time, by people of any age and any gender, with no formal requirements.

Marriage must end with a formal, legal divorce or annulment process. It can be costly, time-consuming, complicated, and emotionally draining.

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

Divorcing spouses must divide their property by legally prescribed methods.

At the end of a cohabitation relationship, the unmarried partners can usually divide property however they wish. But not having legal guidelines may create more conflict.

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

Couples who live together and then split up usually are not required to support each other after the break-up unless they have a contract that says otherwise. This may seem like a boon to the supporting partner. But a partner accustomed to being supported may face unexpected financial hardship after the split.

If one spouse becomes ill or incompetent, the other spouse has the right to make decisions on the ill spouse's behalf on issues like 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 to make decisions for an ill or incompetent partner unless a general power of attorney or health care power of attorney gives them that authority.

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

When one cohabitant dies, their property will pass to whoever is named in their will. If there is no will, to family members according to state laws. The surviving partner has no claim to the estate unless they are 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. They may have to establish their paternity through blood tests and 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 they 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 their children if parentage has been established.

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

Marriage affects many different kinds of legal rights. Your marital status determines 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. A qualified family law attorney can help you work out the legal differences between marriage and cohabitation.

A family law attorney can provide helpful legal advice about your situation. They can help cohabiting couples draw a cohabitation agreement. Attorneys can also advise you on estate planning and inheritance rights. Lawyers can also help you navigate relevant Supreme Court decisions.

Lawyers can help you get a domestic partnership or civil partnership or tell you about common law marriage, whether you are in a same-sex relationship or an opposite-sex relationship.

Speak to a family law attorney about your legal protections today.

Was this helpful?

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.

Find a local attorney

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.

Start Planning