Living Together Outside of Wedlock - The New Normal?

According to the 2010 census, there are 7.5 million unmarried couples living together in the United States (that’s 15,000,000 individuals). The number of unmarried, cohabitating couples has increased a whopping 138% since 1990 and 13% year-over-year from 2009! This dramatic increase in the number of people living together, but not getting married, creates significant legal issues that can have profound impacts on these people’s rights and obligations. When couples do decide to get married, the law creates a specific and detailed framework regarding their rights and obligations in the event that the marriage relationship ends in divorce. For better or worse, the divorce laws define how the parties’ interests in real property, financial assets, debts, and other important legal issues are determined.

So, how are these important legal questions determined when a couple has lived together, but did not get married?

The answer to this question is murky at best. For example, when couples do marry, both spouses will generally have an ownership interest in real property that is acquired during the marriage, even if the title or deed to the property is in one spouse’s name only. Likewise, debts that were incurred during the marriage by either spouse are typically allocated between married persons regardless of who incurred the debt or what the debt was used for. However, if the couple was never married, these issues are considerably more complicated and often will result in a significantly different outcome than what would occur in a divorce proceeding. Because the law regarding unmarried, cohabitating couples is so poorly defined, those who choose to split up are often faced with lengthy and expensive legal proceedings to untangle their financial affairs. Fortunately, there are a number of relatively simple steps that unmarried, cohabitating couples can take in order to avoid unfair outcomes and expensive, contentious legal proceedings. In order to ensure that these steps are taken correctly, and are therefore enforceable, it is extremely important for individuals to consult with qualified and experienced legal counsel. An attorney can help with a number of arrangements that create real and significant protection for unmarried, cohabitating individuals. For example, an attorney may prepare a document known as a “Property Settlement Contract” or a document referred to as a “Cohabitating Contract”. These documents can state the parties’ intentions as to how to untangle their financial relationship in the event that the romantic relationship ends. For example, the contract can spell out what will happen to the couple’s home in the event of a split, who will be responsible for what debt obligations, and how to divide any assets or other property acquired during the relationship. If drafted properly, these contracts are generally enforceable in a court of law. As such, the couple’s intentions with regard to financial matters are clearly stated and are acknowledged by both individuals. This is tremendously important regarding avoiding an unfair outcome in the event that the couple’s relationship ends and dramatically reduces the typical expense and burden of a contested legal proceeding.


If you or a loved one is currently cohabitating with an unmarried partner or are contemplating doing so, make sure your interests are protected. Send us an email message or call 651-439-2878 (in Minnesota) or 715-386-3733 (in Wisconsin) to speak to one of our experienced family law lawyers.

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