In a real estate or rental property context, “cohabitation” means that two people are living together in the same residence. In most cases, the persons are an unmarried couple, thought this does not always have to be the case. For instance cohabitation can include situations where a couple has registered under the civil union or domestic partnership laws of the state of residence.
Usually, in such cases, the simple act of cohabitation does not provide each individual spouse partner with protection regarding their property and assets. State family and property laws generally treat cohabitating partners as individuals for legal purposes.
Cohabitation can have its advantages, such as reduced cost of rent and other benefits. However, it can also have its share of challenges. Perhaps the single most important thing people can do before they begin cohabitation is to sign a cohabitation agreement.
This is basically a contract stating the terms of cohabitation, as well as property rights for the individuals in relation to each other. Without a cohabitation agreement, issues such as property, and debts can be unclear; this can lead to legal action in the future.
Some “Do’s” for cohabitation include:
- DO enter into a valid, legal cohabitation agreement. This will help avoid sticky situations and even legal disputes in the future if the living arrangement changes.
- DO keep finances separate and indicate clearly which property belongs to whom.
- DO hold title to major purchases such a car in the name of the person who is actually making the regular payments for it.
- DO keep records of financial contributions to and from each party. This will help avoid creating financial dependencies.
- DO understand that a non-married parent can often have the same legal obligations as a married parent or a divorced parent (for instance, they may have to pay child support if they have children together).
There are also several things that you shouldn’t do if you will be entering into a cohabitation arrangement. Some common cohabitation “Don’ts” include:
- DON’T incur joint debt or co-sign on the other party’s debts, unless you truly intend to help repay them. Otherwise, you may become legally liable for debt that otherwise isn’t yours.
- DON’T hold yourselves out or claim to be a married couple — you may become subject to common law marriage principles in the event that the cohabitation arrangement ends. Also, you could be held liable for fraud if you indicate that you are married on documents with the intent to deceive.
- DON’T forget to include yourself on the title to any major property, if you are contributing to payments. The deed or title is more convincing than any verbal argument that you helped pay for it.
- DON’T place yourself in any type of position where you become financially dependent on the other person. If you stop living together, you will have no legal claim to their property or assets.
- DON’T forget that you can write “loan” or “gifts” on checks written to your cohabitation partner. This will help contest any arguments that you have been supporting him or her.
Thus, it is important to think carefully about the effects that a cohabitation arrangement could have on your rights. If you are unsure of any specific issues or laws, you may need to consult with a lawyer.
Besides the issues mentioned above, cohabitation arrangements can involve a number of different legal issues and conflicts that are distinct from other types of arrangements. These may include:
- Rent: Conflicts or disputes may arise regarding the amount of rent or monthly property payments each party should pay.
- Privacy: Cohabitation can lead to various privacy issues; make sure you know your rights with regard to the common areas and private areas of the property where you are living.
- Destruction/Appropriation of Property: In a cohabitation situation, property belonging to the other party can sometimes be damaged or stolen, which can lead to legal disputes.
- Violation of Living Agreements: Even with a cohabitation living agreement in place, legal disputes can still occur if either party violates any of the terms.
These types of disputes may require legal action or a lawsuit to resolve. In such cases, the remedy can involve damages for economic losses, or a court order requiring the violating party to take action or to stop doing certain types of conduct.
It might sound a little crazy to ask your girlfriend/boyfriend if they will sign a cohabitation agreement, that maybe it will kill any good feelings about moving in together. But the reality is, it can be messy and sometimes orally agreeing who will pay what will not be enough. Remember, a cohabitation agreement protects all parties, not just the party who wants one.
Again, the laws governing cohabitation arrangements will vary according to each state’s laws. Be sure to check your local laws or consult with a family lawyer if you need help drafting or reviewing a cohabitation arrangement.
In some instances, ending a cohabitation arrangement can lead to a lawsuit, especially if the partners failed to create a proper cohabitation agreement. An experienced lawyer can help defend your interests in court if legal action becomes necessary.