Cohabitation and Property Rights
What is Cohabitation?
The most basic definition of cohabitation is when two people live together in the same residence. Legally speaking, cohabitation usually refers to persons living together who are an unmarried couple.
It is usually the case that the partners are not treated as if they were a married couple, even if they have been living together for a long time. In some cases cohabitating partners can sometimes be subject to domestic partnership laws. However, cohabitation is not the same thing as a domestic partnership. A couple usually needs to register with the state in order to qualify as a domestic partnership.
How does Cohabitation Affect a Person’s Property Rights?
In most instances, cohabitation does not affect each party’s property rights at all. Each partner is usually treated as an individual, meaning that they are not subject to marital property concepts (such as community property or shared property). This may change if the couple addresses property rights in a cohabitation agreement.
What is a Cohabitation Agreement?
Most states require the parties to form a cohabitation agreement if they wish to share the rights to the property that they accumulate during the time that they are living together. Without a cohabitation agreement, the partners usually will not have any property rights in the other partner’s assets.
The cohabitation agreement may therefore be the only source of property rights for the couple, since state laws do not provide mutual property rights under cohabitation laws. In other words, if the couple wishes to share property, they need to indicate this in the cohabitation agreement.
A typical cohabitation agreement will cover such aspects as: real property rights; distribution of property upon termination of the cohabitation arrangement or upon the death of one of the partners; and other issues such as support payments. Again, if the parties do not have a cohabitation agreement, none of these property rights will be provided for under state laws.
Do Cohabitating Partners Have Rights to Support Payments?
Cohabitating partners are generally not entitled to support payments. Support payments are monetary payments made by one partner to another in the event that a marriage or domestic partnership is terminated. If the couple wishes to have rights to support payments, this must be indicated in the cohabitation agreement.
On the other hand, if the couple is legally registered as a domestic partnership, it might be possible for one of the partners to file for support payments if the cohabitation arrangement is terminated.
Are Unmarried Partners Liable for Each Other’s Debts?
Generally speaking, unmarried partners are not responsible for the other partner’s debts, even if they are living together. The state will treat each partner’s debts individually, especially with regard to tax debt or monies owed to the government.
In some states, registered domestic partners may be held liable for debts related to basic living costs, such as food and clothing. However, partners who are simply living together will be held responsible for their own individual debt.
What Happens to the Partner’s Property if One of them Dies?
Again, without a cohabitation agreement, each partner’s property will be distributed according to the probate laws of the state that they reside in. The surviving partner may not actually receive any property distributions at all, since probate laws distribute property to surviving family members first. Since the cohabitating partner is not considered a spouse, they may not be entitled to property distributions if their partner dies. Property distributions can also be addressed in a will.
The only exception may be with regards to joint possession of real property that the partners owned. If the couple had purchased property such as a home as joint tenants, they can each assume the property rights of the other partner if the partner becomes deceased. This is known as the “right of survivorship”, and is an automatic right for joint tenants.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Issues with Cohabitation and Property Rights?
As you can see, a valid cohabitation agreement is probably the single most important document that a cohabitating couple can have. Without a cohabitation agreement, the partners basically have no property rights in the other partner’s assets. A family lawyer can help the couple draft a cohabitation agreement, to ensure that they address property rights. In the event that a lawsuit becomes necessary, a lawyer can help defend the person’s property interests.
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Last Modified: 09-13-2011 04:28 PM PDT