Marriage & Cohabitation

Although marriage used to be the traditional step two people in a relationship took before living together, many couples now cohabitate without getting married.

There are plenty of reasons why one or both would prefer to cohabitate instead of getting married. It could be a personal choice, or they could want to avoid a legal entanglement.

The law treats these two types of relationships very differently, and the partners have different responsibilities to each other. If a partner is in jail and need to go through the bail bonds process, the other partner’s rights under the law would be different depending on whether the couple was married or cohabitating. Here’s a look at the key differences between the two options.

Formal Requirements for the Arrangement

Exact marriage requirements are different depending on the state, but they typically include waiting periods, blood tests, a ceremony, witnesses and blood tests. Each partner must also meet an age minimum, which is usually 18. There are no requirements before a couple can cohabitant.

To end a marriage, the couple must go through either a divorce or an annulment. Both take time and can be expensive. Cohabitation can typically end at any time with no formal requirements, although it can still be emotionally trying.

Division of Assets

Although couples in a marriage can arrange how they wish to divide their assets when they divorce, the court can also play a part if the couple can’t come to an agreement or if the court feels the division is unbalanced. For cohabitation, there are no legal guidelines or requirements on division of assets. This gives the couple the freedom to divide their assets in any way they want, but it can also lead to conflict regarding who gets what property.


In some cases, the spouse who earns the higher wage in a marriage will need to continue providing financial support to the other spouse after a divorce, depending on how long the marriage lasted. This isn’t the case with cohabitation, as neither spouse has any obligation to support the other.

If a married couple has a child together, it’s presumed that the child belongs to the husband unless he has a paternity test done and it proves otherwise. Since the husband is presumed to be the father, he will have parental rights and be expected to provide support for the child should the couple divorce.

If an unmarried couple has a child together, the male partner isn’t presumed to be the father. However, if both partners agree to it, he can be put on the birth certificate. At that point, he is considered the father and will be expected to support the child even if the couple breaks up.

The male partner doesn’t have any obligation to support the child if he’s not listed on the birth certificate on the father, but he can be ordered to take a paternity test to establish that he’s the father. If he is the child’s biological father, then he’ll have parental rights and an obligation to support the child.

Illness and Death

Spouses have a greater degree of control in illness or death than unmarried couples do. Should one spouse end up ill or incompetent, the other spouse will typically have the authority to make decisions on their behalf. If the two are cohabitating, it may be the family of the ill or incompetent spouse who get to make those decisions.

If a spouse dies, their partner can inherit part of their estate, although the exact terms depend on the will. A surviving partner has no claim to any property when a couple was cohabitating, unless the deceased partner listed the surviving partner in their will.

Marriage has quite a few legal implications that cohabitation does not, and it’s important for both partners to understand how their status affects them legally. Both partners have more rights, but also more responsibilities, once they get married, whereas cohabitation doesn’t change much in those areas. Cohabitation is much easier to enter into and to get out of, and marriage requires a more significant commitment.