Berman & Asbel, LLP

Property Basics for Unmarried Couples

People are not getting married at the rate they used to. Rather, data collected by the Pew Research Center and other organizations indicates that cohabiting among adults is increasing. Numbers reportedly rose from about 14 million in 2007 to 18 million in 2016.

While not holding legal married status, men and women in committed relationships often live as if they were. Over time, they accumulate assets and liabilities together. Co-owning a home is not uncommon; nor is co-owning a business. Many times, such couples are jointly indebted on a mortgage, or co-sign loans for each other. For many, the question that must surely spring to mind is, "What happens to all of that property and debt if the relationship ends?"

The answer is that it depends on the laws of the state, and, for those with the foresight to consult with their lawyer, the written agreements they have made with their partner.

Property Protection for Cohabiting Couples

As a matter of general law, unmarried couples living together are still individuals. No matter how long they are together, each is an individual and neither has rights to nor responsibility for the other's property or debts if they break up. If a cohabiting couple wants to change that, it is advisable for them to explore their legal options with the help of an experienced attorney.

Marriage is, among other things, a legal contract. It is possible for an unmarried couple to draft a similar contract. Berman & Asbel recommends a cohabitation agreement.

A cohabitation agreement provides a clear and legal expression of which person owns what, and what is to happen to the property and obligations in the event of a separation. To be effective, such contracts should include:

  • A list of specific assets and who owns them
  • A list of obligations and who is responsible for them
  • Provisions describing how and when documents effectuating transfer or confirmation of ownership are to be executed
  • An explanation of whether and how earnings and expenses are shared
  • Management provisions on joint or individual bank accounts, credit cards or insurance policies
  • Processes to follow to distribute assets if the couple separates, including how possible disputes will be resolved.

Further, if a transfer of specific property is desired from one partner to the other in the event of one's death, estate planning with a will or trust is in order.

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