Deciding whether cohabitation is right for you is a very personal choice that should take into account the specific needs and expectations of you and your partner. Whatever your choice, it is very important that couples who are considering living together be aware of their rights.
The first thing you should understand is that cohabitation does not automatically equate to a common-law marriage. Alabama DOES recognize common-law marriages (as long as they occur before January 1, 2017), which provides spouses with the same rights and remedies as any other married couple, but this term implies far more than simply living together. Primarily, couples who wish to form a common-law marriage should clearly communicate their mutual intent to live together as a married couple.
Cohabitation is not a legal term in Alabama and thusly, there are no specific domestic relations laws governing the rights of unmarried couples who choose to live together. Instead, most of the issues involved in living together are resolved through basic contract law, property law and/or landlord-tenant laws. This means that in Alabama, you will often receive treatment similar to business partners in the process of dissolving a business relationship should you turn to the legal system to resolve any issues resulting from a potential separation.
Absent a clear (and usually written) agreement to the contrary, each of you is presumed to own the property and debts that are held in your individual name. Essentially, this means neither party will be required to split their assets with their partner, nor will either share responsibility for debts held in the other party’s name. This issue is especially significant when it comes to larger assets such as real estate.
Some couples choose to purchase a home jointly in order to share responsibility for the debt and protect each party’s interest in the investment, but this is not always practical depending on the financial status of each individual. Often, a partner with a stronger income and work history and higher credit score may purchase a home in his or her name with the intention of sharing that home with his or her unmarried partner. In the event the couple separates, the house will generally remain the sole property of the partner in whose name it was purchased, regardless of who was paying the mortgage.
You should think very carefully before investing significant funds into a property owned by someone to whom you are not married and understand that if circumstances change in your relationship, you may one day find yourself with little or no rights to the property.
Similarly, you should also carefully consider the implications of financing a home or any type of property you cannot afford to pay for on your own. You may have had no trouble fulfilling your financial obligations as long as you rely on your partner to contribute his or her income to the household, but if the relationship doesn’t work out, remember that you will be stuck with any debts you acquired in your own name.
Some couples choose to deal with these issues by preparing a written cohabitation or “living together” agreement which outlines the rights and responsibilities of each party during the relationship and in the event it doesn’t work out. While it may not seem like the most romantic way for a couple to start their journey of living together, an explicit agreement can provide mutual protection and peace of mind and greatly simplify things down the road should the parties decide to separate.
It can also be a valuable tool in practicing your skills in communication and teamwork, as the ability to negotiate and clearly communicate your expectations and desires is one of the most important aspects to success in any relationship. Some couples may choose to create their own written agreement, but it is always a good idea for each partner to consult with an experienced attorney who can advise you of your rights and help you draft a good agreement that meets your needs.
Unmarried couples should also consider what happens in the event either partner dies. Unlike married couples, your surviving partner will not automatically be entitled to a share of your property. In Alabama, the survivor will inherit nothing from the other absent a will or some other type of contract or joint ownership that specifically provides that right.
If you keep your home, bank accounts and other property separate (in your individual names) throughout your relationship, it is very important that you prepare a will if you intend for your partner to receive all or a portion of your property in the event you die before they do. Other options may be available to protect your wishes and you should consult an estate planning attorney who can advise you of the best options for your circumstances.
It’s never fun to think about these sorts of issues during the exciting stages of starting a new life together and establishing a household with a romantic partner. In fact, many couples who choose to cohabitate state that they prefer to avoid all the legal implications of marriage and forge a lifelong partnership based on love and mutual trust, without the contractual obligations.
While this may certainly be viewed as a beautiful and perhaps even noble undertaking, it should be noted that most divorce attorneys routinely receive frantic calls from unmarried individuals who were left out in the cold by a former partner who, during happier times, promised to “take care of them no matter what.”