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Cohabitation is gaining popularity as more and more couples are choosing to live together either prior to or in lieu of marriage. According to the most recent census report, there are 11 million people living with an unmarried partner in the United States – an astonishing 72 percent increase since the previous U.S. census.

People choose cohabitation for a variety of reasons. Sometimes couples opt for cohabitation if they love each other but are not ready for marriage or do not intend to get married. Other times, as in the case of same-sex couples, the law prohibits people from getting married. Whatever the reason for choosing cohabitation, people living under such an arrangement do not receive the same legal recognition or benefits as married couples.

The legal differences between marriage and cohabitation are many. Some of legal issues on which marriage and cohabitation differ include:

•  Requirements – To enter into marriage, the law may require a license, a waiting period, blood tests, an official ceremony, and/or witnesses. Cohabitation requires none of these formalities and can be entered into at any time, by anyone, regardless of gender.

•  Termination – A marriage must be ended formally through a legal divorce or annulment whereas cohabitation can usually be ended upon agreement of the parties.

•  Division of Property – State specified divorce laws govern the division of property between legal spouses. A cohabitation relationship falls under no such laws, leaving the parties to divide the property themselves.

•  Financial Support – A spouse may have a financial obligation to the other spouse, depending on who earns the higher wage. Unless they have entered into a contract stating the financial terms of a split, a couple that cohabits has no such obligation.

•  Decision Making – In legal marriages, one spouse generally has the right to make decisions on behalf of an ill spouse. Couples that cohabit, however, have no right to make decisions on behalf of an ill partner and must usually defer to someone who has that authority. The exception to this occurs when the cohabitants have signed a power of attorney authorizing one another to make such decisions.

•  Inheritance - Upon the death of one spouse, the other spouse has a legal right to a portion of the deceased spouse's estate. If a cohabitant dies, the surviving partner has no right to the estate unless named in the deceased partner's will.

•  Children – Children born to married couples are presumed to be the offspring of the husband and wife whereas paternity must be established (through blood tests and legal action) for the father of a child born into a cohabitation relationship.

•  Child Support – In the case of divorce, the non-custodial parent has a legal obligation to provide financial support for the children of the marriage. After the end of a cohabitation relationship, parentage must be established for the same legal obligation.

Most unmarried couples that live together do not have a cohabitation agreement outlining their expectations of and obligations to one another, financial or otherwise. A cohabitation agreement is a legally binding contract essentially meant to ensure the rights of each partner.

It is always wise to seek legal counsel before entering into any contractual agreement, especially where finances and other important property or estate matters are concerned . It is also important to note that not all states recognize cohabitation agreements and that a cohabitation contract usually becomes invalid if the couple marries. A qualified attorney can help explain the legal ramifications of cohabitation.

If you are currently in a cohabitation relationship and would like to find out more about your rights, you may wish to consult with an experienced attorney who can help you plan the best course of action. Click here to consult with an experienced divorce and family law attorney – FREE of charge.

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