How to Cover Your Bases When When You’ve Chosen Cohabitation

Modern love brings us the choice and freedom not to marry. I was just reading a Pew Research Center report that states the average age of a first marriage is 27 for women and 29 for men, apparently a record high. That means a lot of people are choosing to cohabitate before marrying.

Among the loads of factors couples consider when deciding whether or not to marry, a big factor is cost. The average cost of a wedding is about $25,000 – and then there’s the ring. It’s not surprising that more couples consciously choose to opt out of marriage and live together. Many couples are even buying a home together.

Cohabitation Laws in Washington State

Here’s the thing – even if you decide not to marry – Washington state law doesn’t really let you “unsubscribe” (if you will) to marriage. Cohabitation is not a legal pass. It’s a little like the experience of trying to get off of a bad list serve or email blast. You think, “Wait – didn’t I already unsubscribe?” But, somehow they keep finding you.

Washington state law imposes rights and responsibilities on couples who live together if the relationship is determined to be a committed intimate relationship. So, even if you ditch the diamond for a Jamie Joseph and ditch the dress for a down payment, you might suddenly find yourself married-ish in some ways and not in others. From a legal standpoint, the nature of an unmarried couple’s relationship is fraught with uncertainty.

Cohabitation Agreements are a Great Option

But you can be more certain. There’s a great legal instrument you can use. It’s called a cohabitation agreement and provides you with a clear blueprint.

Here’s how it works: together, the two of you define your relationship by deciding what rights and responsibilities you want to share with one another and what you want to keep separate. While it may sound counter-intuitive, the structure provided by a cohabitation agreement can provide a beneficial foundation that promotes greater trust and openness.

Common Cohabitation Agreement Scenarios

Here are several common situations a cohabitation agreement can address:

  • If one person earns significantly more or one more person has a greater debt load, the agreement can ensure that separate income and separate debt remain separate.
  • If one person has previously purchased real estate or contributed more to the acquisition of real estate, then the cohabitation agreement can protect the separate interest and also provide a framework for how to pay to maintain the home.
  • For older couples, a cohabitation agreement can help in creating commitments while avoiding the risk of losing pension benefits.
  • Finally, a cohabitation agreement is a really good idea for couples who are not married, but where one person stays home to raise children.

As Mae West said, “Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.” Just be sure that if you’re shacking up, you’ve really unsubscribed.

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