A generation ago, couples rarely lived together until after they were married. However, the tides have turned, and couples are increasingly opting to live together before – or instead of – marriage.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that cohabitation is now more common than marriage – which represents a shift from just a decade earlier.

Cohabitation considerations

There are many reasons a couple may choose to live together rather than marry. For instance, a widow or widower may not want to remarry if doing so would jeopardize their Social Security survivor benefits. Similarly, a couple may want to test out how their relationship withstands the added challenges of living under the same roof – before deciding to tie the knot. Still others may simply choose to be in a committed relationship, but see no reason to make it legally binding.

Does cohabitation limit my rights?

When a marriage ends, the law dictates the way in which property will be divided and child or spousal support assigned. In addition, if one spouse passes away, the law has provisions that allow the surviving spouse to receive inheritance – if there is no will.

The process for unmarried couples is less cut and dried. If your relationship ends, you and your partner can decide amongst yourselves how you want to handle the above issues. However, if you cannot come to an agreement, and you qualify as being in a “committed intimate relationship” (CIR), then the courts can make decisions regarding such issues for you.

What is considered a “committed intimate relationship”?

Washington courts will examine a variety of factors in determining whether your relationship qualifies as a CIR. These include:

  • Relationship duration and exclusivity
  • Continuity of cohabitation
  • Presentation as a committed couple
  • Management of shared finances
  • Existence of joint bank accounts, lines of credit or property
  • Estate planning documents naming your partner as beneficiary, power of attorney, etc.

How a cohabitation agreement can help

If you’re living together with your partner, setting up a cohabitation agreement can be valuable for you both. This functions similarly to a prenuptial agreement for married couples – and outlines how your shared assets and responsibilities will be handled in the event that your relationship ends. Just like a prenup, it can be as general or detailed as you see fit. You and your partner decide what goes into the agreement. This can help prevent conflict between you and your partner down the line – and avoid a situation in which a court makes decisions on your behalf.