Living together has never been more popular. According to the 2010 Census data, over 7.5 million unmarried couples live together (which translates into 15 million people). This is a whopping 138% increase since 1990, and an increase in 13 % from 2009 alone. Forty percent of unmarried households have children. The number of cohabiting seniors has increased significantly in the last 10 years and is continuing to rise.
If you are part of an unmarried couple living together, it’s probably comforting to know that you are far from alone. However, this doesn’t mean that you can ignore how the law affects your relationship.
Legal Issues Affecting Unmarried Couples
There are a wide range of legal and practical rules that affect opposite-sex unmarried couples living together—from sharing money and property (contract law) to owning a house together (real estate law) or sharing an apartment (landlord-tenant law) to having a child with your partner (family law) to writing a will (estate planning).
When you understand the law, you and your partner can make informed decisions about how to structure your life, finances, property ownership, and family relationships to best meet your needs. Failing to learn about the law and take measures to protect yourself and your partner can have negative consequences. The special rules governing married couples (such as those relating to property ownership, divorce, and inheritance rights, to name a few) don’t apply to unmarried couples. In order to compensate for this, you’ll have to do some extra work. For example, you may want to:
- write a will to ensure that your partner gets your property when you die
- sign paternity statements to ensure that a father’s parental rights are preserved,
- create a “living together contract” regarding who owns what to avoid protracted court battles over property if you split up, or a property settlement agreement if you do separate without a prior written agrement.
Most unmarried couples can safely and easily master the majority of legal rules that affect them. However, it’s also true that an experienced lawyer’s advice can be invaluable when it comes to dealing with more complicated situations—for example, if one of you has children or substantial assets, or you’re dealing with complicated estate planning.
Why Not Get Married?
There are many reasons why people choose to live together without getting married. Some don’t see the need for the state’s approval of their commitment to each other. Many couples view it as a trial period before marriage. Some avoid marriage because they have gone through a messy divorce. Many people live with partners for economic reasons, especially in expensive urban areas with high-cost housing. A growing minority choose not to marry because they don’t wish to participate in an institution that excludes same-sex couples. And the fast-increasing number of unmarried couples over 45 that live together—over one-fifth of all unmarried couples fall into this category—often have financial concerns that come into play. For example, by not marrying they don’t become legally obligated for their partner’s medical treatment, and they reduce the risk of paying tax on Social Security benefits. And by not marrying, many avoid tricky inheritance issues if one or both partners have children from a previous marriage or own substantial assets.
One of the most common reasons older couples choose to live together instead of marrying is to avoid joint liability for debts, especially for long-term care or medical bills. Staying unmarried also enables each partner to qualify individually for public benefits, such as Medicaid, without draining the other partner’s resources. There are detailed rules about how this must be structured to avoid inadvertent triggering of joint liability, so if you are considering such a strategy, consult with an attorney specializing in elder law before you make any big decisions.
Finally, changing social attitudes and values have made living together less of a stigma; living together is not considered as rare (or immoral) as it was 30 or more years ago. In fact, the American Law Institute, an influential organization of lawyers, judges, and legal scholars, recently recommended sweeping changes in family law, including recommending that family courts and state lawmakers begin to treat living together relationships more like marriage—even recommending that laws provide for alimony-like payments when unmarried couples split up after a long time together.
For resources, support, and advocacy for unmarried people living together, check out the Alternatives to Marriage Project.