What You Should Know Before You Move In Together

By Jared Laskin

.......... People live together rather than marry for any number of reasons. In some cases (such as same-sex relationships), the couple may be unable to legally marry. In others, the couple may prefer unmarried cohabitation to marriage for a variety of reasons which may include:

not seeing a need for "a piece of paper" to express their comittment to each other;

not wanting to incur the obligation to support or share property with each other;

wanting to avoid the stress and expense of a divorce if the relationship doesn't work out.

.......... Whatever their reasons for living together rather than marrying, many couples who live together don't give enough thought to -- and may have made mistaken assumptions about -- their legal rights and obligations.

..........One of the most important differences between marriage and unmarried cohabitation is that while marriage involves a highly defined set of rights and obligations, unmarried cohabitation does not. While some might say this is exactly the reason they want to avoid marriage, the lack of clear legal rules and built-in protections can result in unpleasant surprises.

For example:

..........1. You may rely on your partner for financial support for many years. However, if the relationship breaks up you may have no clear right to support payments (whereas a spouse would be entitled to spousal support). You may also have no clear right to share in the assets your partner may have accumulated during your relationship (whereas in a marriage such assets would be community property).

..........2. On the other hand, you may have decided to live with your partner precisely to avoid the financial entanglements of marriage, only to find yourself sued for "palimony" (property sharing and/or support) when the relationship ends.

..........3. You may expect to inherit your partner's estate, but if your partner dies without making provision for you (e.g., in a Will or Living Trust), you will not be his or her legal heir (as you would be if you were a spouse).

..........4. Your partner may become ill and unable to make medical decisions for him or herself, and you will find that you have no legal right to make decisions for him or her.

..........These types of problems can be avoided or minimized by, among other things, a cohabitation agreement, proper estate planning, and a power of attorney for health care. You and your partner should openly discuss all of these issues, and take whatever steps are necessary to protect yourselves and make sure your expectations are fulfilled. For more information you should know before moving in together, also see "The 'Nevers' of Living Together."

..........The information on this Web page is based on California law.  It is not legal advice and cannot replace the advice of competent legal counsel licensed in your State based on the specific facts and circumstances of your case. See Disclaimer.