What to Include in a Living Together Contract

Learn what your cohabitation agreement should cover, tips for preparing a contract with your unmarried partner, and what will happen to your agreement if the two of you later get married.

Updated by , Legal Editor

Living together agreements are known by several different names, including cohabitation agreements, cohabitation property agreements, and unmarried couple contracts. Whatever the name, these agreements are a type of contract between two people who live together (or are about to move in together) as unmarried partners.

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 don't need to be like the fine-print monsters pushed at you when you buy insurance or a car. You can, and should, design your agreement to say exactly what you both want, in words you both understand. (More below on how to write a cohabitation contract.)

The Basics of a Cohabitation Contract: Money and Finances

The main purpose of most cohabitation contracts is to set out how unmarried partners will handle their finances and property while they're living together—and whether they'll have any rights to each other's property if and when they split up. So these agreements will typically cover:

  • whether you'll share ownership of property, including personal property and a home or other real estate
  • how you'll handle paying for living expenses like food, utilities, and rent (for instance, you might split these expenses 50-50, contribute in proportion to your incomes, or simply pool your earnings into a joint account for paying household bills), and
  • how you'll handle responsibility for debts.

Learn moreabout cohabitation property agreements, including the legal requirements and who needs these contracts.

What Will Happen If You Separate or One Partner Dies

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.

You should also address the issue of whether one of you will pay—or have no obligation to pay—some form of financial support to the other (sometimes known as "palimony") after you separate.

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. Learn more about estate planning for unmarried partners.

Dispute Resolution for Cohabitation Agreements

One of the main advantages of a clear, written cohabitation contract is to avoid expensive court battles—for instance, if there's a dispute over ownership of some property that you bought during the relationship, or if one of you claims you're owed financial support after a break up. But even with a written contract, disputes can still happen—such as when the partners disagree about the exact meaning of some provision in the contract.

That's why it's always a good idea to include a provision in your agreement that spells out how you'll handle any future disputes over the contract. For example:

  • You might choose to make mediation the first-choice method for resolving disputes.
  • If mediation isn't successful, you might allow either partner to submit the dispute to formal and binding arbitration.

The agreement should also spell out how you'll choose and pay for a mediator or arbitrator.

Support for a Stay-at-Home Partner

If one of you will work outside the home while the other will be fully or mostly responsible for homemaking (and caring for children if you have them), you will probably want your agreement to address compensation or financial protection for the stay-at-home partner—who presumably has given up educational or employment opportunities (or both). You can choose between the different ways of addressing this issue, including one or more than one of the following:

  • sharing ownership of property in return for homemaking services
  • agreeing that the higher-earning partner would pay financial support (often called "palimony") for the stay-at-home partner after a break-up, and
  • keeping your property separate and ruling out future support but providing a salary for the stay-at-home partner while you're living together (although you should consider the tax consequences of this option).

Other Possible Issues for Living Together Agreements

Depending on your circumstances, your cohabitation agreement might also address other issues, such as:

  • Common law marriage: If you and your live-in partner live in one of the states that recognize common law marriages—and your relationship meets the legal requirements—you'll be treated under the law as if you were married. Among other things, that means that if you split up, you'll have to get a divorce and be subject to all of the divorce laws in your state. If you don't want this outcome, you should include a statement in your cohabitation agreement making it clear that neither of you has ever intended to enter into any form of marriage, common law or otherwise.
  • Joint projects: If you plan to build a house or boat together, or take on some other joint project, you'll want to spell out each partner's contributions, how you'll divide the project if you separate, and what will happen under certain circumstances (like if one partner doesn't come through with the promised contributions). Be aware that you should get legal advice before agreeing on a joint business venture.
  • Creative work: If you've agreed to share your assets and one of you is involved in creative work (like writing, visual art, or inventions), your agreement should address ownership in any intellectual property rights, sharing of income from the sale and licensing of the creative works, how and when the works will be valued, control over sales and licensing deals, and related issues.
  • When one partner is in school. If one of you will help with the other's educational expenses and living expenses while going to school, the agreement may clarify whether those expenses will be reimbursed if you split up within a certain time. You might also agree to take turns going to school and supporting each other during those intervals.
  • When one partner moves or gives up a job. For instance, you might decide that if one of you relocated or gave up a job (or both) to move in together or maintain the relationship, the other one will provide some compensation if you break up within a certain period of time.

Tips for Writing a Cohabitation Agreement

Most unmarried couples with relatively simple finances should be able to write their own cohabitation agreement. We've outlined a few tips below. (You can also find information and suggestions for specific contract clauses, as well as templates for creating your agreement, in Nolo's book, Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples.)

1. Talk it out first. Before you can prepare a written cohabitation agreement, you'll need to talk about it, identify your points of agreement and disagreement, and see if you can work out compromises on the latter. This is especially true if one of you will be making sacrifices for the relationship, such as moving a long distance or giving up a job to care for the home and small children.

Many people find that creating a contract forces them to deal with the guts of their relationship. This is a healthy thing to do, but it can also be trying. Take your time, and don't expect to finish in an evening. A good contract often involves compromise and accommodation. Preparing your contract should be an affirmative act, but it's up to you to make it so. If you get bogged down, take a break and get back to it when you're both feeling more cheerful.

2. Don't try to cover everything in one contract. Relationships and people are complicated. If you try to cover too much ground in one contract, you may never figure it all out. It's often better to have several smaller agreements covering specific issues. For example, you may want to separate your general property agreement from an agreement on supporting a partner who's in school. Also, you should have separate agreements when you're planning to co-own or take title to a home together, or if you'll be buying a car or making another major purchase together.

3. Don't get personal—or put personal issues in a separate agreement. Courts will generally enforce valid agreements between unmarried partners that cover property, payment for services (excluding sex), or payment in exchange for giving something up, such as a job. In contrast, judges aren't likely to enforce agreements covering nonmonetary issues of a personal nature, such as who will do the dishes and who will walk the dog. Although it's a good idea to be clear with your partner on things such as housecleaning and cooking, it's not a good idea to include these issues in a contract with the bigger legal and financial issues of living together.

If you want to work out an agreement on personal relationship issues, put them in a separate agreement. Then, if the worst ever happens and you find yourselves in court, the judge will only see the separate agreement on property and finances.

4. Don't mention sex—but do include other "considerations." All valid contracts require "consideration," the benefit each party will get from the arrangement and the thing they're agreeing to do (or not do) in return for that benefit. But if the consideration in a cohabitation contract is sex, a judge will almost always refuse to enforce it. That's because it's illegal to pay for sexual services. Even if your agreement simply refers to the fact that the two of you are lovers or are having a sexual relationship, some courts will rule that the entire contract is invalid.

It's safest to avoid any potential problems by avoiding any reference to your sexual relationship. If you're agreeing that one of you will provide most of the financial support during and after your relationship, you should spell out what the other partner will be giving up (such as a job or educational opportunities) and doing in return (such as cooking, taking care of the home and the couple's personal business, taking care of the children, and providing companionship during travels).

5. Don't agree to share property if either of you is still married to someone else. In many states, it might be possible to create a legally valid cohabitation agreement to share property even if one or both partners is still married but is permanently separated from their spouse. However, this is a legal gray area with little certainty. So if either of you is still married to someone else, it's best to agree in writing to keep all your property separate until the divorce is final. Then you can write a new agreement, pooling your property if you both wish to do so.

6. Know when you need independent legal advice. Each of you should have a separate lawyer at least review your draft agreement if one or both of you own a lot of property, or if the two of you have unequal bargaining power. It's just common sense that you'd want advice on the consequences of a cohabitation property agreement when you have significant or complicated finances—especially if one of you has significantly more assets than the other. Also, a judge might not enforce a cohabitation contract if it appears that one partner has taken advantage of the other.

7. Beware if you live in Illinois, Georgia, or Louisiana. As of 2023, courts in Georgia and Louisiana won't recognize and enforce cohabitation agreements. (Abrams v. Massell, 586 S.E.2d 435 (Ga. Ct. App. 2003); Ga. Code § 13-8-1 (2023); Schwegmann v. Schwegmann, 441 So.2d 316 (La. Ct. App. 1983).) It's also doubtful that a judge in Illinois would enforce a living together contract, because the Illinois Supreme Court has held that these agreements violate the state's public policy of outlawing common law marriage. However, you might be able to create a valid contract with your partner if it states that the agreement is a contract to share ownership of certain property and has nothing to do with your personal relationship. (Blumenthal v. Brewer, 69 N.E.3d 834 (Ill. 2016); Spafford v. Coats, 455 N.E.2d 241 (Ill. Ct. App. 1983).) Speak with a lawyer for advice.

8. Don't forget the final steps. Once you've settled on what goes into your cohabitation agreement and put everything in writing, make sure that you and your partner each have copies of the final contract, along with all attachments (such as lists of your property). Sign and date both copies. Usually, you won't need to sign in front of a notary, but some states require notarizing agreements that include issues affecting real estate. In that case, you can record the notarized agreement at your county records office. Notarization won't make your contract legal or enforceable. It just proves that your signatures weren't forged, which can never hurt.

What Happens to Your Living Together Agreement If You Get Married?

Your living together contract will be enforceable after you and your partner get married only if the agreement:

Because of these dual requirements, most couples who prepared a cohabitation contract will have to sign a new prenuptial agreement ("prenup") if they later decide to get married and want to make similar arrangements about their finances and other issues.

What Happens Without a Valid Prenuptial Agreement?

If you get married without a valid prenup, your state's laws on property ownership during marriage will apply, along with the standard rules on the rights and obligations of married people. And if you later end your marriage, the divorce laws in your state will also apply—including rules on property division, alimony, and child custody.

How to Convert Your Living Together Contract Into a Prenup

If you want the property ownership terms of your living together agreement to apply during your marriage—for example, if you want to keep property separate despite your state's laws on ownership of property during marriage—you can usually do this by rewriting your agreement as a premarital agreement. However, be aware that states prohibit couples from including provisions in a prenup about child custody or support.

Follow these steps to convert your cohabitation agreement into a prenup:

  • Review and discuss changes: Use your upcoming marriage as an opportunity to take another look at your agreement; make any agreed-upon updates and changes.
  • Rewrite the agreement: Call it a prenuptial or premarital agreement, and state that it is made in contemplation of marriage and does not take effect until you marry.
  • Get independent legal advice and review: If you write your own prenup, both you and your fiancé should have separate lawyers review the new agreement and at least briefly advise you about it. And if one of you hired a lawyer to draft the prenup, the other should have a different attorney review it. Some states require this independent legal review. But even if that's not a requirement in your state, a judge will be more likely to find that the agreement is valid when both spouses had their own legal advice before they signed.
  • Get the agreement notarized: Each of you should sign the prenup in front of a notary public.

For more information about premarital agreements, as well as forms for creating one, see Nolo's book, Prenuptial Agreements: How to Write a Fair & Lasting Contract. For legal help preparing your agreement, see Nolo's Lawyer Directory for a list of local family law attorneys.

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