In the 1960s, cohabitation before marriage was scandalous. But today, living together prenuptially is part of most relationships. According to research by Arielle Kuperberg, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, "70 percent of women aged 30 to 34 have cohabited with a male partner."
But that comes with problems. "About half of couples that move in together will break up," Kuperberg says. And it can get messy. That's where a cohabitation agreement comes in.
"Breaking up after moving in together involves finding a new place to live, sometimes breaking leases, splitting up joint bank accounts, or choosing who will get custody of a shared pet, let alone the issues when children are involved," Kuperberg says.
A cohabitation agreement can help avoid that mess. "Everyone should have one," relationship expert and critically acclaimed columnist April Masini says.
It's comparable to a prenup—without the marriage part. It covers what to do with a couple's property in case of an emergency, a breakup, or an unexpected death. Of course, the agreement covers real estate, but it also can cover cars, children, pets, income earned during the cohabitation, joint projects, individual belongings, joint belongings, and anything else the couple brings into a cohabitating relationship.
We asked divorce attorney and law blogger Michael Boulette why a cohabitation agreement is such a big deal.
- Cohabitation agreements define your relationship to the state...
Most unmarried couples don't understand their legal rights as an unmarried couple, and in many cases they may not have any; Boulette recommends defining your rights for yourself. "States are used to dealing with married couples," Boulette says, "What the law doesn't do very well is deal with unmarried couples who haven't defined their status toward one another, and [it] often ends up either denying them rights altogether or shoehorning them into legal doctrines that don't make much sense."
- ...No matter what state you're in.
An unmarried couple's rights vary from state to state; so if they're young and mobile, their rights are always changing. Boulette says, "Even if they have done the research about what rights they would have in one state, if they move, their rights might be completely different or nonexistent."
- Having one helps navigate a tough situation.
When a couple that's living together breaks up, there are problems. Besides the financial loss and emotional damage, there are logistical issues to work through. "When things go south, as they sometimes do, having an agreement (...) prevents chaos," Masini says. "Thinking about what could go wrong before it does can often ward it off. Simply drafting and reading and signing a cohabitation agreement can prevent problems."
- Writing one facilitates communication about the future.
Communication is essential in any successful relationship, but it's especially important for couples that live together. "So often, couples avoid talking about hard issues precisely because they're hard, hoping they'll go away if they're ignored," Boulette says. "A cohabitation agreement can help start a very important conversation about a couple's values, intentions, and how they want to live their lives."
- Terrible things happen; cohabitation agreements prepare you for it.
A cohabitation agreement answers every one of the "what ifs" Boulette says: "Cohabitation agreements are an important estate-planning tool if one partner dies unexpectedly but, perhaps, has many assets titled solely in his or her name or, conversely, has assets titled jointly that aren't intended to pass only to the surviving partner." In a time of grief, you don't want to worry about losing your home or belongings; a cohabitation agreement ensures you won't be.
- Change is inevitable; again, cohabitation agreements prepare you for it.
Even seemingly perfect relationships go sour. "We don't have anything to fight about," "We keep our finances separate," and "If we broke up, we'd figure it out," are not valid reasons for not planning ahead. "What people forget is that over the course of long relationships, expectations can change drastically," Boulette says. "Agreements allow the parties to fix their rights relative to one another and can also make them more cognizant about adjusting those rights if it becomes appropriate."
- Having one can save you money in the long run.
Without an agreement, breakups can get nasty. Masini has seen it all: "Things get drawn out, sometimes for years and years on end. Lawyers are involved, which is always a sign that you're going to pay through the nose for a couch you bought at the secondhand shop that you both won't let go of." The initial cost of a cohabitation agreement is worth it if things don't end well.