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 that's living together presumably will be sharing the cost of rent, utilities, food, and other daily expenses. There are also the 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 do's and don'ts before becoming cohabitants with your significant other.

Cohabitation and the Law: What You Should Do

1. Consider entering into a cohabitation agreement before moving in together. It can set the ground rules for the financial and other arrangements in the relationship, and may prevent a lot of headaches if the relationship doesn't last.

2. Hold title to any major purchases in the name of the person or persons who is/are actually 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.

3. Keep finances separate if you want to avoid heated disputes in the event the relationship terminates.

4. Keep accurate records of your financial contributions to any property held by your partner.

5. Write "gift" or "loan" on checks written to your partner if you want to negate any possible suggestion that you have been supporting him or her, which is an issue that can arise in a post-break-up "palimony" lawsuit.

6. Remember that a never-married parent has the same child support obligations as a once-married parent.

Cohabitation: What to Avoid

1. 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 support of your partner after a split.

2. Avoid holding title to major purchases in your partner's name alone if you are both paying for that property, even if they orally agrees 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. Avoid holding yourselves out to the public as a married couple or use 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, among other things, cohabitation can also give rise to certain legal obligations and disputes especially as it relates to property ownership. Depending on which state you live in, 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.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified family law attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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