Living Together Unmarried: How to Protect Your Rights in an Unmarried Cohabitation

by Joesph Kemmerling
couple on couch

In America, it is becoming more and more common for couples to live together without getting married. Cohabitating with a romantic partner may seem like a less complicated option than marriage. Still, unmarried cohabitation can present its own risks that people can and should protect themselves against. 

Though Common-law marriage was once recognized in Pennsylvania, it is no longer recognized for anyone who attempts to contract into a common-law marriage after January 1, 2005. This means that just because two people act like they are married does not mean that they will be viewed as married in the eyes of the law. Instead, non-married cohabitants need to take specific steps to protect their interests. This can be accomplished in a few ways.  

First, Cohabitation agreements can be a great tool for unmarried cohabitants. Cohabitation agreements are like pre-nuptial agreements in that they lay the framework for how things will be handled if the parties separate. Cohabitation agreements can address a wide variety of issues, including how to deal with property that existed before the relationship, how to deal with property acquired during the relationship, how to split bills and other costs during the relationship, how to deal with any residences, how to handle checking accounts and other financial assets, and how disputes should be handled should the parties break up (whether through mediation or in a specific court). These agreements can give the parties clear guidelines that can help them navigate their relationship and provide them with a roadmap for how to amicably divide their assets should the parties end their relationship. Having a cohabitation agreement can prevent a lot of the fighting that happens during a breakup and make a partition action much easier if necessary.  

In addition to cohabitation agreements, parties can be intentional about how they buy real property. For example, parties can enter into property as joint tenants with the right of survivorship, which gives a party the right to inherit the entire property upon the other party’s death. They can also enter into a property as tenants in common, which gives each party a 50% interest in the property. In addition to buying real property, parties can be intentional about how they rent property by ensuring that both parties are on the lease or including in their cohabitation agreement a clause that addresses rental property if the parties break up.  

Finally, Property is just one aspect of sharing a life together. There are other things that unmarried partners may consider to give them peace of mind. For example, many married couples discuss and plan for incapacity and end-of-life care. These are things that non-married partners should consider as well. This may involve contacting an attorney to update or draft a will as well as power of attorney paperwork, healthcare directives, and healthcare power of attorney paperwork. This not only ensures that the incapacitated person’s wishes are honored if anything should happen to them, but it also gives the other party the authority to act on their partner’s behalf.  

Ultimately, people choose to cohabitate without getting married for a multitude of reasons, but this does not mean that those people need to live with uncertainty about what to do if the relationship does not work out. There are legal procedures in place that are designed to give unmarried cohabitants a sense of security. These processes can take the pressure off of the parties and allow these couples to focus on building their lives together without worrying about what happens if things fall apart. 

If you have any questions about how these processes can help you, contact a Family Law Attorney. Remember, if you are not married, many of the benefits that are automatically applied to spouses may not apply to you. Speaking to an attorney about what legal mechanisms exist to protect you can put you in the best position to deal with anything that life may throw at you.

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