In the event of death or breakup without a cohabitation agreement, you and your partner may be treated as legal strangers.
If you have chosen cohabitation over marriage – you aren’t alone. Cohabitation between married partners has increased 1,150 percent in the last 40 years. The fact remains that, unless you define your partnership through a legal contract, the law may see you as strangers in the case of a breakup or death.
What is Cohabitation?
The concept of cohabitation has expanded to include any two partners who have integrated their residence, property and daily lives. It can be viewed as a starting point for people considering marriage down the line, but can also be the ideal arrangement for couples who don’t want the social, personal and legal commitment associated with marriage. Other reasons individuals cohabitate include:
- Reduction of living expenses.
- Inability of a union of same-sex individuals to be recognized by the law.
- Choice by older individuals who don’t want to upset family or friends through remarriage.
The need for Cohabitation Agreements.
By choosing cohabitation, couples forego certain rights and protections that would be provided for them in a marital union. Married couples accrue legal rights, including the right to receive a property settlement and/or support in the event of divorce; file joint tax returns; receive distributions from estates free of estate tax; receive survivor’s benefits from retirement plans and Social Security; obtain “family” health insurance, dental insurance, and other employment benefits; and automatically share in his/her partner’s property in the event he/she dies without a will. Unmarried couples, generally acquire similar rights by expressly securing their benefits in cohabitation agreements (also referred to as cohabitation contracts). A cohabitation agreement is a private contract between cohabitants, which typically tries to establish contractually for the parties the rights and obligations that married people obtain by custom, statute, and agreement.
Why a Cohabitation Agreement?
Even if you regard your partner as family, the law usually does not. As a result, your partner may not be provided for in the manner you desire. For example, if you die without a will, your property generally will pass to your next-of-kin and not your partner. Paradoxically, the law may provide certain benefits for your partner that you had no intention of giving to him or her. Today, some courts are using equitable doctrines to apportion assets between cohabitants to prevent hardship and injustice. Because these doctrines are vague,proving them is both difficult and expensive. Therefore, you should be proactive and define your own partnership through a legal contract. Below are additional benefits of entering into cohabitation agreements:
- To guarantee the financially less secure partner an equitable settlement.
- To properly compensate a party for his or her role as a caretaker
- To allow the financially more secure party to limit exposure in the event of a breakup.
- To disclose expectations of the relationship, both financial and personal.
What to cover in a Cohabitation Agreement?
A cohabitation agreement is a flexible, laissez faire document that is less subject to regulation than a marital agreement. These contracts typically cover the following key points:
- Distributing property in case of death or breakup.
- Obligating financial support during the relationship or upon its dissolution.
- Handling the payment of debts.
- Dividing the principal residence upon breakup of the relationship or if one of you dies. Setting up the property ownership as ‘joint tenants with rights of survivorship’ will allow your partner to stay in your shared home. You’ll also want to be sure both of your names are on the deed.
- Defining support, custody or visitation rights for minor children (although nonbinding).
- Specifying health insurance coverage. Create a ‘health care proxy’ that will allow your partner to make decisions about your health care in case of emergency.
- Determining the right to serve as guardian/conservator in the event of incapacitation.
- Establishing the right to make medical decisions.
What’s the difference between a Cohab and a Prenup?
Prenups and cohabs compare like apples and oranges. A cohab will NOT have the same force and effect after marriage as a prenup. Most states have adopted legislation prescribing specific requirements for prenups, while very few states have adopted laws dealing with cohabs. As a result, cohabs are governed almost exclusively by general contract principles. Please remember that while a prenup goes into effect only upon marriage, a cohab usually isn’t valid once the parties marry.
The Commitment Conversation:
Are you in a long term relationship or do you know someone who is building one? In an effort to help individuals and couples feel more comfortable in discussing their lives together, we’ve created a guidebook to help you and your partner navigate through conversations that will strengthen your lives together.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE:
Living together does not automatically entitle either one of you to the rights and protections afforded to married couples. That is why you and your partner must state your rights and obligations in a legal document in the event of a breakup or death. A cohabitation agreement will insure that you and your partner are protected at the same time that it clarifies your understanding of the relationship.
Contact attorney Marc Wander to set up a cohabitation agreement.
Marc H. Wander is a partner of the Bloomfield Hills law firm of Witzke, Berry, Carter &Wander, PLLC. Marc has been licensed to practice law in Michigan since 1992. Marc’s practice is devoted to estate planning and business succession planning. Marc is a member of the Probate and Estate Planning Section of the State Bar of Michigan and is a prior Chairperson of the Oakland County Bar Association Tax Committee. He is a frequent continuing education speaker to insurance agents, financial advisors, CPA’s and financial industry organizations. He has also been heard on WJR Radio. Follow Marc on Twitter @MarcWander