A living together contract can be comprehensive, covering every aspect of your relationship, or it can be specific, covering only one transaction (such as a new house purchase). These contracts need not be like the fine-print monsters pushed at you when you buy insurance or a car. You can, and should, design your contract to say exactly what you both want, in words you both understand. A simple, comprehensible and functional document using common English is much better than one loaded with "heretofores" and "pursuants."
If you want your living together contract to include personal details about your relationship, make two agreements. The first one should pertain only to property and finances. Then, if the worst ever happens and you find yourselves in court, the property and finance terms will be the only ones a judge sees. Write up a second agreement, if you wish, about who will do the dishes, who will walk the dog, how many overnight guests you'll allow and whose art goes in the living room. A court won't -- and shouldn't be asked to -- enforce this kind of agreement. In fact, if you do make just one agreement that includes personal as well as financial clauses, you run the risk that a court will be distracted by the personal clauses and will declare the entire contract illegal or frivolous, thus negating the more important financial clauses.
Here are the issues that couples most often include in a living together contract:
Property and Finances Clauses
Your living together agreement should cover all of your property -- including the property you had before you began the relationship, as well as the property either or both of you accumulate during it.
Property owned before living together. You each probably had some property before you met. Making an agreement about this property may seem unnecessary, but it's not. Think about trying to sort things out ten years from now, when you've both been referring to everything around the house as "ours." You can agree to keep all of your previously owned property separate, or you might want to share some or all of it with each other. Do what suits you best.
Property inherited or received by gift during the relationship. Many people will want to keep separate the property they inherit or receive by gift. Others will want to "donate" the property to the relationship. Again, it's up to you. Remember that any property given to both of you is legally owned by both -- this includes gifts you receive at a commitment ceremony or anniversary party, even if given by a relative or friend of just one of you.
Property bought during the relationship. Many people make purchases item by item, understanding that whoever makes the purchase owns the property. Purchases can also be pooled. A consistent approach to property ownership may simplify things, but is required by neither law nor logic. Some items may be separately owned, some pooled 50-50, and some shared in proportion to how much money each contributed toward the purchase price or how much labor each put into upkeep.
Your agreement should cover how you want to handle expenses during your relationship. For example, how will you divide the day-to-day costs for food, utilities, laundry, housing and the like, especially if expenses increase or decrease? Here are a few suggestions about how to share expenses:
- Share and share alike. Many couples have only one checking account. They both deposit their paychecks into it and pay all household bills out of it. They figure it all evens out in the end.
- Split 50-50. Some couples prefer this method. When one partner buys something for the house or pays a bill, he writes his name on the receipt and throws it into a jar. Every few months, they empty out the receipt jar and total up how much each has spent. One then writes the other a check to even things up.
- Each contributes in proportion to her income. This works especially well for people with large income discrepancies.
Separation or Death
It's wise to include at least brief provisions in your agreement stating what will happen if you split up or if one of you dies. You may simply want to say that if you separate, each of you will have the right to take immediate possession of your separate property and that all jointly owned property will be divided equally. If there is property that you own together -- but not in equal shares -- you'll want to specify a method for dividing it between you.
Though it may be difficult to think about it, it's especially important to consider what will happen if one of you dies. Without properly prepared documents, members of an unmarried couple have no right to inherit property from one another. You can use your living together agreement to specify how you want to provide for each other; it will serve as strong evidence of your intentions. Be aware, however, that writing out a plan in your agreement is not enough. You should also use a will, living trust or other estate planning documents to ensure that your plan is carried out as you wish. For more information about ways to leave your property at death, see the Wills, Trusts & Estate Planning area of Nolo's website.
We recommend that every couple who prepares a living together contract include a method for resolving any disagreements that later arise out of it. Traditionally, it this type of dispute was severe, a couple had to go to court to resolve it, but there are better alternatives now. You may want to make mediation your first-choice method for resolving disputes, stating in your agreement that you will choose a third party to help you resolve any disagreements about your living together contract. If mediation is unsuccessful, you might allow either partner to submit the dispute to formal and binding arbitration. This should be enough to avoid the complications and expenses of a lawsuit.
What Happens to Your Living Together Agreement If You Get Married?
Your living together contract will be enforceable after marriage only if it was created shortly before your marriage at a time when you both planned to marry. To be enforceable, prenuptial (or premarital) contracts must be made in contemplation of marriage. For more information, see the Prenuptial Agreements section of Nolo's website.
For all the information and forms unmarried couples need to define and protect their relationship in the eyes of the law, get Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples, by Ralph Warner, Toni Ihara and Frederick Hertz (Nolo).