Understanding Cohabitation: Legalities and Steps to Consider

  • Cohabitation is rising in popularity in the U.S., but laws vary significantly by state and offer limited protections.
  • Common-law marriage may be recognized in some states after a certain period of cohabitation.
  • Cohabiting couples often draft a cohabitation agreement to outline rights and obligations in case of a breakup.
  • Domestic partnerships and civil unions may provide similar legal protections as marriage but are unavailable in all states.
  • Cohabitation dissolution requires strategic financial planning, division of assets, and often legal advice for best outcomes.

Co-habitation, or living with a partner without getting married, is becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Many people choose to live together and build a life without getting legally married. However, cohabitation laws vary from state to state, and it is essential to understand your legal rights and obligations if you decide to cohabit with your partner.

State Laws

There are no federal laws regarding cohabitation in the United States. However, individual states govern cohabitation, and the laws vary significantly. In some states, cohabiting couples have the same legal rights as married couples, while others have limited or no legal recognition.

In states that recognize common-law marriage, cohabiting couples who live together for a certain period may be considered legally married. The length of cohabitation required for common-law marriage varies from state to state. Some states require couples to live together for as little as six months, while others may require several years of cohabitation.

Living together couples

No Legal Protections

If you decide to cohabit with your partner, it is essential to understand that cohabiting couples do not enjoy the same legal protections as married couples. For example, cohabiting couples do not have automatic inheritance rights, and dividing assets may be more complicated during a breakup.

Many cohabiting couples draft a cohabitation agreement outlining their legal rights and obligations in case of a breakup. A cohabitation agreement can specify how property and assets should be divided and whether spousal support will be paid.

In some cases, cohabiting couples may wish to pursue a domestic partnership or civil union. Domestic partnerships and civil unions legally recognize the relationship and the same legal rights and protections as married couples. However, not all states allow domestic partnerships or civil unions.

Steps to Start Co-Habiting With Your Partner

You can take various steps if you decide to cohabit with your partner. Here are some of them:


First, decide on the responsibilities that each partner will have and lay these out in writing. This is important to ensure that both parties know their rights and obligations.

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Discuss how you will handle finances during your cohabitation, including who will pay which bills and manage joint accounts. Have this conversation when you first move in together to prevent any misunderstandings.

Property Rights

Understand what happens to any property you purchased together during your cohabitation and how it will be divided if you break up. This is particularly important when one partner owns a house or other real estate before the relationship begins.

Dissolution of Co-Habitation

If you want to dissolve your cohabitation, follow these tips:

Research State Laws

Co-habitation laws vary from state to state, so research your local laws to understand how they will be handled during a breakup. Additionally, getting an experienced family law attorney involved might be prudent. They can help you understand your legal rights and obligations. This is especially important if you both have children

Create a Financial Plan

If you are breaking up, it is essential to create a financial plan. This includes deciding who will stay in the house if you own it jointly, how shared debts and assets will be divided, and how child support or spousal maintenance payments should be handled.

Divide Assets

If you have purchased any property or assets together, decide who gets what and ensure these arrangements are outlined in an agreement. This is especially important if one partner owns a house before moving in with their partner.

Seek Legal Advice

It is best to seek legal advice if you have any questions or concerns about your legal rights and obligations during cohabitation. An attorney can advise you on your state’s specific laws and assist with drafting a cohabitation agreement if needed.

Living together without getting married can be an exciting experience, but it is also essential to understand the legal implications. By understanding your rights and obligations under cohabitation laws, you can ensure that both parties are protected during a breakup. Do your research before deciding to move in with your partner, and discuss any potential legal issues openly and honestly. This will help you build a strong foundation for your relationship and peace of mind for both partners.