Living Together? Consider A Cohabitation Agreement

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – More than 12 million unmarried couples live under the same roof in America. Not every pair will sign a marriage license, but many are choosing to sign an agreement similar to a prenuptial contract.

While prenuptial agreements are nothing new, they are no longer limited to people preparing to tie the knot. More and more unmarried couples are heading to a lawyer to get what are called cohabitation agreements.

Jewel Landers and her boyfriend, Chuck, have been a committed couple for 23 years. They live together and have a financial routine.

"Chuck pays the household bills. He pays the mortgage. I pay for the cell phone bill, which is large, and everything that comes into the house," Landers said.

But the deed to the house is only in Chuck's name -- something that concerns Landers.

"I would hope that if something were to happen to us that I would get something out of it without having to take him to court," Landers said.

Landers' relationship is going strong, but 48 percent of divorce attorneys surveyed said they have seen an increase in unmarried couples in court.

The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers said these cohabitation agreements can prevent much of that for couples who share a home or other property, but are not married.

"It outlines their expectations for their relationship, and also what happens in the event that the relationship ends, either by death or by simply deciding they're not going to live together anymore," Viken said.

Agreements can range from simple to complex, covering everything from medical decisions and health insurance to payment of debt and division of property. It depends on the couple's needs.

"What happens if you buy a house together? Who gets that house if it's not in both names?" Viken said. "Also, furniture or other things that are not titled and not in anyone's particular name? You could even divide the pets up, if you wanted to."

Viken said all these things should be discussed, because, depending on the state, an unmarried couple can be treated as legal strangers.

Viken said cohabitation agreements prevent these legal problems.

"You don't have to go to court. You simply follow your agreement," Viken said. "That saves you the time, the money and the emotional turmoil that would be if you have a fight."

Relationship coach Anne-Renee Testa views these agreements as a sign of the times. Over the past two decades, the number of unmarried couples living under the same roof has increased by more than 85 percent.

"Any couple that is interested in being intelligent about their relationship should do something like this because it absolutely clears the air," Testa said. "It creates an openness about their relationship."

That's why Testa believes a cohabitation agreement shouldn't be viewed as a negative.

"It's not about one person controlling the other. It's not about feeling as though the romance is taken out of it. If anything, they should go out and have a glass of champagne afterward and celebrate," Testa said.

Landers said Chuck hasn't opened up to the idea of a cohabitation agreement yet, but hopes he will change his mind.

"I think you need to protect yourself, just in case something happens," Landers said.

The state of Florida does not recognize common law marriage unless it was prior to 1968 or the couple was common law bound in another state. Experts recommend that you consider a legal, written agreement significant live together.

For more information on the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, visit aaml.org.