Cohabitation is an arrangement in which an unmarried couple live together in a long-term relationship.

Unmarried couples have fewer legal rights and obligations than married couples or those in civil partnerships, with many now seeking a cohabitation agreement to formalise matters between them. Couples may want an agreement if their circumstances are changing, for example if they are having children or getting a mortgage or before they move in together.

A cohabitation agreement is a legal agreement that determines who owns what and in what proportion. The agreement will enable a couple to document how they would divide their property, contents, personal belongings, savings and any other assets should the relationship change or break down.

The agreement can also cover how to support any children, over and above any legal requirements to maintain them, as well as how to deal with bank accounts, debts, and joint purchases such as cars and household appliances.

Additionally, the agreement can also be used to set out how a couple manage their day-to-day finances while living together, such as how much each contributes to rent, mortgage and bills and whether they take out life insurance on each other.

Why is an agreement important?

The law does not currently recognise, in any meaningful way, a living-together relationship outside marriage or civil partnership.

If a cohabiting relationship breaks down, there is very little protection for a more ‘vulnerable’ partner. As a result, some cohabitating families can find themselves facing real difficulties should they split up, particularly when children are involved.

In the absence of holding a legal ownership interest in a particular property, unless an agreement is in place, partner B has no legal right to a share of any property, even if he or she has contributed to a mortgage or has contributed in other ways, such as staying at home to care for children. Therefore, unless partner A agrees to a settlement, partner B could become homeless unless he/she can afford to go to court.

Drafting an agreement

One partner needs to use a solicitor to get a draft agreement properly drawn up. A copy is then sent to the other partner for their consideration. For an agreement to be valid:

  • both partners need to enter into it freely and voluntarily
  • each person needs to sign it
  • it needs to be kept up-to-date for major life changes – such as property and children

What happens next?

Each partner should get legal advice independently of one another to make sure they understand and are happy with the agreement. Once both parties are satisfied with the agreement, the document can be signed and witnessed by both parties.

Invaluable and essential

Although discussing, preparing and paying for a cohabitation agreement to be created might seem like a rather onerous task, it could prove to be invaluable and essential in the event of a personal change in circumstance or a relationship breakdown.