Divorce Lawyer Explains Cohabitation Agreements

John Griffith, a San Diego divorce lawyer, explains the importance of unmarried couples having cohabitation agreements in place. Couple Sailing

Carlsbad, CA – The number of unmarried couples who live together is on the rise, and many of them believe they have the same legal protection as married couples. That couldn’t be further from the truth, but there is an agreement that can be reached to create a layer of protection, should the relationship end. It’s called a cohabitation agreement, and it defines a couple’s mutual rights and obligations regarding property owned jointly or separately. It can also outline living arrangements, as well as financial and other obligations or expectations a couple mutually agrees upon. This agreement often is compared to a prenuptial agreement, but it can be reached before or after a couple lives together. This legal document is becoming more popular in light of cultural changes that have shown a 25 percent increase in unmarried couples since 2000, according to a U.S. Census report.

The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers conducted a poll in 2011, and 39 percent of divorce attorneys reported an increase in the demand for cohabitation agreements over the last five years, according to a blog post. Half the lawyers polled reported seeing an increase in legal battles between cohabiting couples during the same period. It is important for unmarried couples to know how they can protect their personal property in the event of a split.

“Because California courts will enforce implied, oral and written agreements, I recommend that clients put their intentions in writing, since this leaves little room for misinterpretation,” says divorce attorney John Griffith. “This helps ensure misunderstandings are avoided, and can make a breakup less nasty because it is easier to enforce that which is in writing.”

It’s a good idea to discuss property and financial matters and have a cohabitation agreement in place before moving in together, but an agreement still can be put in place after you’re already living together. Why should you do this? Let’s say you move into your girlfriend’s house and she is listed on the deed as the sole property owner. You have children and maintain your relationship for 20 years, but then the relationship ends. You have no right to that property, even if you helped make mortgage payments all those years. “Trying to get a portion of what you feel is rightfully yours in this situation is difficult at best when there is no written agreement in place,” Griffith says. Here’s one thing to keep in mind: a cohabitation agreement has its limits. It cannot address child custody, child support or visitation issues.

History of Cohabitation Agreements

The roots of this legal agreement date back to the 1976 California Supreme Court case involving actor Lee Marvin and his former live-in girlfriend Michelle Triola. Triola sued Marvin after they split up, claiming they had agreed to pool their property and finances. In its summary, the Supreme Court said, “we base our opinion on the principle that adults who voluntarily live together and engage in sexual relations are nonetheless as competent as any other person to contract respecting their earnings and property rights.”

How to Get a Cohabitation Agreement

If you’re interested in learning more about cohabitation agreements and whether you need one in place, we recommend scheduling a consultation with a family law attorney who can provide details on all the benefits and limitations of such an agreement. A family law attorney also can draft an agreement that will protect your assets and property in the unfortunate event of a breakup.

Our office offers complimentary consultations. Call today to schedule an appointment to learn more about how a cohabitation agreement can protect you.


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