Unmarried Cohabitation is on the Rise, but Even ‘Nearlyweds’ Need Legal Protections
Marriage rates in the United States have been declining for years. A recently-released study from the National Center for Marriage and Family Research at Bowling Green State University found that the marriage rate is 31.1 per 1,000 unmarried women. In other words, 31 of every 1,000 unmarried women in the U.S. get married each year. By comparison, the rate was 92.3 in 1920. The average age of women at the time of their first marriage is also up, currently at 27 years old.
Those marrying later or not at all have many reasons for doing so. They may have parents who suffered a painful divorce and are reluctant to risk the same outcome. They may be same-sex couples unable to marry under the laws of their state. Or they may regard marriage as nothing but a legal document that holds no particular significance to them.
Whatever the reason, marriage is on the decline. But that does not mean that people are giving up on long-term relationships. Cohabitation – that is, living together unmarried – is on the rise. Cohabitation often involves sharing finances and sometimes the deliberate choice to have children. The term “nearlyweds” has been used to describe couples who are unmarried but whose lives in many respects resemble those of the wedded.
Nearlyweds may be motivated to eschew marriage out of recognition that they are not immune to the statistics that show some half of all marriages end in divorce. And clearly, divorce is too often a messy affair even between spouses who were once deeply committed and in love. But if nearlyweds believe they can quickly and easily dissolve a long-term relationship just because they are not married, they may be in for a rude awakening.
The emotional fallout of a breakup is likely to be just as bad in cases of cohabitation as in divorce, and bitter adversity and dispute remains a real possibility. And marriage and divorce offer certain legal protections that are not available to those who cohabitate, which can make issues such as the division of property and the sharing of child custody more difficult.
It is not difficult for nearlyweds to put some legal protections in place. A written “cohabitation agreement” is similar to a prenuptial agreement. It is a plan of action to dissolve a relationship that is not working out. It can contain details on the division of assets, including shared houses or cars, and who will have custody of children and pets. The best time to make a cohabitation agreement is before living together, but there is nothing to prevent couples from creating it after living together for years. And even if the relationship works out and the agreement is never needed, it can still bring peace of mind to know it’s there. If you want to have a cohabitation agreement or any other legal arrangement for your relationship, contact an experienced family law attorney.