Unmarried couples do not generally have any property rights in the other partner’s assets if they split up. Unlike married couples, unmarried couples are not subject to various property laws. This means that if the couple splits up, they will likely retain only their own property. 

The main exception is where the couple has specifically indicated that they have joint ownership of a property. This must be stated and formalized in a written document known a “property agreement.”

What Is a “Property Agreement”?

A property agreement is a written document used by unmarried couples in order to protect their property interests. It is sometimes referred to as a “non-marital agreement.” The agreement will usually state which partner owns which assets, and also covers what happens to the property if the couple should split up. A good, clearly written property agreement will also include provisions regarding property that is jointly obtained by the couple during the course of their relationship.

What If We Want to Buy a House Together?

If an unmarried couple wishes to purchase real estate together, it would be wise to draft a property agreement, even if it only covers the house and not other property. The property agreement for the house or other real estate should cover:

  • How much of the property each partner owns
  • How ownership should be listed on the deed: The agreement should record how ownership will be listed on the deed, such as “joint tenants with right of survivorship” or “tenants in common.”
  • What should happen with the property if the couple splits up
  • Whether either partner has buyout rights against the other

Are Unmarried Couples Liable for Each Other’s Debts?

Generally, neither partner in an unmarried couple has a responsibility to pay the other’s debts. This is very different from most marriage laws, which state that married partners are liable for all debts incurred during the marriage, including those incurred by the other party.

The only exception for unmarried couples’ debts is where the couple has specifically taken the responsibility of shouldering the other’s debt. Common situations where one partner is liable for the debts of the other are debt that is charged to a joint account, or where they have co-signed on a promissory note. 

In many states, unmarried couples that have registered as domestic partners may become liable for each other’s expenses and debts. For example, many jurisdictions require domestic partners to pay for the other’s basic living expenses. Again, this may vary by region, but one way to avoid liability is to include a provision in a property agreement discussing distribution of debts.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Unmarried Couples’ Property Rights?

The more a partnership resembles a marriage, the more necessary it may be to come up with a valid property agreement. You should consider consulting with an experienced family lawyer for assistance drafting the agreement.