Legal Protections for Unmarried Cohabitating Partners

In the last decade, there has been a significant shift in society’s understanding of traditional marriage. In the past, the definition of marriage was held to a standard that limited the different types of familial relationships available. With more and more flexibility regarding what defines marriage, we are seeing more and more non-traditional families and people are feeling less obligated to following the same patterns as their parents.

If you and your partner are currently unmarried and living together, it is important to speak with an experienced family law attorney about the possibility of creating a strong cohabitation agreement.

Traditional Marriage is a Legally Defined Relationship

The one benefit of traditional marriage, specifically these days, is that the laws do not change as quickly to adjust to the ever-changing and ever-evolving concept of marriage. The laws, which were put into place to emphasize and encourage the traditional conception of marriage, make it clear that two partners that have entered into a legally binding relationship. However, when a couple decides to eschew tradition and maintain a relationship that does appear traditional, it can be more difficult for the law, and more specifically, the family court, to catch up.

The Trend Towards Unmarried Couples

These days more and more people are waiting to get married until they are in their late twenties or early thirties, and some couples are refusing to get married at all. The Census Bureau found that in 2015, approximately 8 million unmarried couples shared a household, which is almost three times the number of unmarried couple households in 1996. For many, the legal bounds of marriage do not fit the lifestyle that they have created for themselves. When a couple has decided to cohabitate but not marry, the laws can get murky in the event that the couple splits or if one of the partners gets ill and/or dies.

The Law Does Not Reach Unmarried Couples

Cohabitating couples enjoy no legal relationship. Without a legally binding relationship, when the couple splits, there exist no rules as to what is shared property and who gets what in the breakup. These people, in the eyes of the law, are just roommates, and any dispute over property would break down into an issue of property rights rather than shared, marital property.

Cohabitation Agreements to Help Legally “Define the Relationship”

Couples have turned to cohabitation agreements to ensure that property rights are evaluated communally, similar to married couples or couples who drew up prenuptial agreements before getting married . Cohabitation agreements help to clarify property rights in the event that the couple breaks up and needs legal help to determine how to equitably distribute the property acquired during the relationship. Though the courts may not see that the relationship itself as legally binding, they can assess the cohabitation agreement and attempt to honor its contents.

Other Agreements Necessary for Unmarried Couples

Cohabitation agreements , however, do not articulate every need that the couple might have. For example, under the law, unmarried couples are not related to each other and may have little to no rights to each other’s inheritances in the event that one of them gets ill or dies. It may be important for cohabitating unmarried couples to draw up a will to ensure that any inheritance passes to the other partner rather than to the next of kin, which it automatically does when a person is unmarried and dies intestate. Partners should also consider having an advance directive that would permit each partner to make medical decisions on the other’s behalf and also a power of attorney that would prescribe some legal and financial powers between the unmarried couple.

Please contact West Palm Beach family law attorney William Wallshein for a confidential consultation.