6 Things to Do Before Breaking Up With Someone You Live With

Breaking up with someone you live with isn't as complex as a divorce. But when conflicts arise, unmarried couples don't have the same legal protections as married couples.

By , Journalist

More Americans are making the decision to live together outside of matrimony than ever before. A Pew Research Center analysis found that the number of cohabiting unmarried couples soared to 18 million in 2016—a 29% jump since 2007.

While some of these live-in relationships will stand the test of time, many won't. A Stanford University study found that both same-sex and opposite-sex unmarried couples have much higher breakup rates compared to married couples, even when they've been together for two decades or more.

People who are unmarried and uncoupling might face issues similar to their married counterparts when it comes to property division, financial responsibilities, and child custody.

Although it's not as legally cumbersome as a divorce, breaking up while living together takes preparation. It's important to know what rights you might (or might not) have when ending a live-in relationship and consider situations where you might need legal advice.

Breaking Up When You Live Together vs. Divorcing a Spouse

Generally speaking, breaking up with someone you live with is not as complex as when a married couple goes through a divorce.

"You don't have to go through the court system like you do if you're married because you don't have a legal status to be resolved or terminated," says Frederick C. Hertz, an attorney and mediator in Oakland, California, and co-author of Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples.

This makes breaking up a cheaper, simpler option for most unmarried couples. But on the downside, Hertz says, "If there are conflicts, you don't have ready access to the legal system."

That's because laws that protect married couples—on property ownership, financial support, child custody, and more—don't apply to unmarried couples. And that can sometimes make a split complicated.

6 Things to Do Before Breaking Up With Someone You Live With

Whether you want to initiate the breakup with your live-in partner, or suspect the end of the relationship is near, it's best to be prepared. Hertz recommends completing these six important tasks before talk of breaking up gets serious.

  1. Review any existing cohabitation or property ownership agreements. If you already have a written agreement outlining how your joint assets should be divided, study it carefully and determine what needs to be done to carry out the terms. (See below for more about cohabitation agreements and co-ownership of a home.)
  2. Locate and organize financial documents and records of any shared assets or debts. This includes joint bank and brokerage accounts, insurance policies, property deeds, credit card information, tax returns, etc. Make copies of these documents and store them in a safe place.
  3. Protect your physical and virtual assets. This includes valuable personal property such as art or family heirlooms. Move items to a safe place with a family member or friend if you're worried your ex might try to sell or take them. Be sure to change the passwords on your email and bank accounts to maintain privacy in managing your affairs during and after separation.
  4. Make an exit plan. At least one person will have to move out of the residence. Decide if you wish to live there, at least in the short term. It's a good idea to continue to pay your share of the expenses (including rent, if you're on the lease, or your share of mortgage if you're a co-owner)—even if you're not living there—until you have a written agreement. Make sure to collect your mail and keep an eye on the condition of the property.
  5. Research the laws in your state regarding unmarried relationship breakups. If you and your partner share children or co-own significant assets, you might want to consult with a lawyer.
  6. Minimize spending. Avoid any new financial expenditures with your partner. Don't open a line of credit or agree to incur major debt, such as starting a home renovation or buying a new car.

If Your Partner Is Abusive or Threatening

You might need to make immediate plans to protect yourself and safely leave the relationship if you're being threatened or abused by your partner. Some states have legal protections for tenants who are experiencing domestic violence. Consider applying for a temporary restraining order if you need to keep your partner away from you and your home.

What Is a Cohabitation Agreement?

Breaking up with someone you live with isn't always cut and dry. Sometimes there are factors that complicate matters for one or both partners.

That's why it's a good idea to have an agreement in place even before you move in with each other, or at least before either one of you decides to leave, Hertz says.

Writing a living together contract or cohabitation agreement gives couples the option of creating a number of legal documents that help protect their rights as a couple and safeguard each of their individual assets.

Hertz strongly recommends a written cohabitation agreement for couples in certain circumstances. This includes when:

  • You co-own a major asset, such as a home, and you need to determine your share of ownership and what happens if you break up.
  • One partner made or is making a major sacrifice that is financially detrimental to themselves, such as giving up a job to relocate and to move in with their partner. If one partner becomes financially dependent, an agreement can provide a safety net.
  • You or your partner made a commitment to make support payments (sometimes called palimony) to the other partner in the event of a breakup. For example, if a promise was made that if the relationship ends within five years, one will pay a specified amount for a period of time to help the other to relocate.

What Are Your Rights If You're Asked to Move Out?

The difference between the end of a marriage versus an unmarried union when it comes to a home is that laws in most states are highly favorable to whoever owns the property, Hertz says.

It's not possible to cover every situation here, but we've put together examples of different scenarios to give you an idea of what you might expect. Always consult a legal expert in your state for advice specific to your situation.

When both partners own the property:

  • There might be a disagreement about who will move out or what to do with the property after a breakup. Because you're not married, you can't seek resolution through the family court system like you could if you were going through a divorce. Instead, you'll need to come to an agreement on how to divide the property on your own, or follow the legal procedures required in your state.

When one partner owns the property:

  • In most states, the courts will view the non-owning partner as a tenant, even if there's no written lease or rental agreement. If they refuse to move out, instead of resolving the issue through family court, the owning partner would have to file an eviction notice.

  • If the non-owning partner put money into the house where the couple lived—but isn't on the loan or title—they might ask to be paid back for the money invested in the property. "Unlike marital law, which is set up in most states to be fair to both married partners, the unmarried ‘out partner' (in this case, the one who doesn't own the home) has a very hard row to hoe," Hertz explains. "In some states, like Texas or New York, you cannot even make a claim unless you have a written agreement."

When you're renters:

  • You'll need to work together to decide who stays or who goes if you're both on the lease. You're both on the hook for rent and damages, and need to comply with all rental agreement or lease terms. After you make the decision about who will move out, get in touch with the property manager or landlord to take care of any necessary paperwork.
  • If only one partner is listed on the tenancy agreement, the second partner might have no rights to stay in the property. In some states, however, a roommate can legally gain status as a tenant. If that's the case, the partner on the lease would need to seek a legal eviction if the other partner refuses to move out.

Leaving a Live-In Relationship When a Child Is Involved

If you and your partner are raising children together—and you're both the legal parents—your marital status is irrelevant in the eyes of the law.

You don't necessarily need to go through the court system if you can come to child custody and child support agreements on your own. However, if conflicts arise with child custody or support, you or your partner will need to file a case in the family court system.

In most states, you can't combine the child custody dispute with a financial dispute, Hertz adds. So, if you're ending a relationship with your live-in co-parent and there are financial and custody disputes, the matters will have to be handled as two separate legal actions.

Legal Help for Breaking Up When You Live Together

In most cases, you won't need to go through the court system when breaking up with someone you live with—as long as you and your ex can agree on how to divide your assets and share child custody and support. But, that doesn't mean you shouldn't consult with an attorney.

Hertz recommends getting legal advice in circumstances such as when:

  • Your partner won't leave your house and you're the sole owner of the property or the only tenant on the lease. Your ex may feel entitled to stay if they put money into fixing up the house or covered the rent for a length of time. An attorney can advise you on how the matter should be handled under state laws.
  • One partner has a significant financial support claim. For example, when one partner is completely financially dependent on the other and will need support after separation.
  • There's a substantial sum of money that needs to be paid out. "To me, that's $20,000 or more," Hertz says. "In that case, there really needs to be some kind of written agreement because you don't want the ex-partner coming back six months later and saying, ‘Thanks for that $25,000, now I'd like $100 more.'"

If you decide to consult an attorney, search for one who's experienced in family law issues related to unmarried cohabitating couples.

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