Family Law

Legal Documents for Cohabitating Partners

Marriage isn't for everyone. For some people, it isn't an option. If you're in a committed, long-term relationship, take steps to ensure both you and your partner's legal rights are honored.

Make the following legal documents part of your portfolio to:

  • Protect children
  • Protect assets
  • Protect your wishes after death

Living Together

Cohabitation Agreements

More and more unmarried couples living together are putting together contracts known as cohabitation agreements or domestic partnership agreements that outline:

  • How living expenses are split
  • Who pays the mortgage and when
  • How your property is divided if you break up
  • Who pays the expenses of selling the property (such as a shared house) in the event of a breakup
  • Current property ownership and how future property will be owned

It's important to sign the cohabitation agreement in front of witnesses. Using separate attorneys to review the agreement is best if you can afford it. That way, neither person can later complain they didn't understand what they were doing in signing the agreement.

Raising Children

If you're unmarried but have children together, or have children from prior relationships living with you, it's important to put your partner's name on emergency medical care forms, school pickup forms and so forth. Otherwise, your partner may lack authority to care for your child in an emergency.

Estate Planning

Powers of Attorney

A durable power of attorney gives your partner the right to handle your finances and health care decisions if an accident or illness leaves you incapacitated. This can prevent disputes with family members, who otherwise might be legally entitled to make these decisions.


A will is one of the most important documents in your estate planning toolbox. It describes how you want your property to be distributed to your heirs. If you don't have a will, everything goes to your relatives. So if you want your partner to receive even a part of your estate, it's important to say so in a will.

Letters of Instruction

A letter of instruction provides details about your wishes for burial or cremation. You can name your partner as the person responsible for making decisions regarding your funeral and obituary.

Federal Estate Tax Planning

Unmarried couples must plan more carefully how to allocate sizable estates. An estate planning lawyer who understands tax laws can make the necessary adjustments to help your situation.

Beneficiary Changes

You need to name a beneficiary on many accounts, such as:

Beneficiary designations on these accounts override your will, so it's important to make sure the money in these accounts is going to the appropriate beneficiary, either your partner or someone else.

Property Titles

For unmarried couples, property ownership is determined strictly on the basis of how the assets are titled. It's important to talk with a local real estate attorney to find out whether your want to own property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship (when one joint owner dies, the other automatically becomes sole owner), or whether some other ownership type best suits your needs.

Retirement Planning

Unmarried couples don't qualify for Social Security survivor benefits or survivor benefits under more traditional pensions. So it's important to set aside additional assets to cover retirement plans.

The legal protections of marriage aren't available for some relationships. So you need to find other ways to protect each other financially and make your life together more secure.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • May I adopt my partner's children even though we aren't married?
  • How can I visit my significant other in the hospital if I'm not a relative or spouse?
  • What can I do to ensure my child's school recognizes my partner as an emergency contact if I'm not available?
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