Cohabitation Agreements vs. Domestic Partnerships: What You Need to Know

Flicker, Kerin, Kruger & Bissada LLP

When romantic relationships become serious, many couples decide to take legal action to make their bond official. The most common way to do this is by getting married. However, marriage is not the only way to legally bind yourself to your partner.

If you do not want to get married, you have several other options to add legal bonds between you and your partner. The two most effective alternatives are legal partnerships and cohabitation agreements. This article discusses the difference between cohabitation agreements and legal partnerships, how they compare to marriages, and when a couple may benefit from choosing each of these legal arrangements.

What Is a Domestic Partnership?

Domestic partnerships, sometimes called civil unions, are the primary alternative to marriage. In California, these partnerships grant many of the same benefits as marriage. They are specifically recognized relationships under the law that come with certain rights and responsibilities. Entering a domestic partnership in California automatically grants you and your partner rights such as:

  • Protection under community property laws
  • Legal parentage of children born or adopted during the partnership
  • Ability to adopt your partner’s children born prior to the partnership
  • Eligibility for employment, retirement, and health benefits
  • Participation in the division of a partner’s intestate asset (assets if your partner passes away without a will)
  • Ability to make critical medical decisions for your partner if they are incapacitated

It’s important to note that domestic partnerships are not recognized by the federal government. The primary difference between marriage and a domestic partnership is that partners are not granted federal marital benefits like taxes or federal employment benefits.

What Is a Cohabitation Agreement?

In contrast, cohabitation agreements do not grant state recognition of your relationship. Cohabitation agreements are contracts between two parties that can be used to set specific rules for their relationship.

For example, a cohabitation agreement can be used to define:

  • How property ownership is assigned within the relationship
  • How expenses will be split, how disputes should be resolved
  • How property should be divided if the relationship ends

These agreements can be combined with other legal documents such as a Power of Attorney to grant many of the rights granted in a domestic partnership or marriage. However, a cohabitation agreement never changes your legal relationship status, so they appeal to couples who may prefer less formality.

Legal Partnerships vs. Cohabitation Agreements vs. Marriages: What’s the Difference?

When deciding the future course of your relationship, you should clearly understand how domestic partnerships, cohabitation agreements, and marriages differ. The differences can significantly affect how your relationship proceeds legally, financially, and emotionally.

Both marriages and domestic partnerships are exclusive relationships that are recognized by the state of California. Both contracts automatically grant you specific rights and responsibilities, such as joint property ownership and parental rights. Ending these relationships requires specific legal action, and you cannot enter a second marriage or domestic partnership without dissolving the first.

Meanwhile, cohabitation contracts function more similarly to prenuptial agreements for couples who have not chosen to get married. These agreements are inherently flexible. Couples can decide for themselves what is included within their contract, and there are no rights or responsibilities that are automatically included.

While cohabitation contracts cannot grant all of the same rights as a domestic partnership, they can be used on their own or combined with other contracts to build a legal structure that perfectly suits your relationship.

How to Choose the Right Legal Arrangement for Your Relationship

Breaking it down, domestic partnerships, cohabitation agreements, and marriages grant the following:

 Domestic PartnershipsCohabitation AgreementsMarriages
Status as legally marriedNoNoYes
Grants paternity to childrenYesNoYes
Right to make medical decisionsYesNot aloneYes
Right to joint propertyYesPotentiallyYes
Dissolution necessary to form a new contractYesNoYes
Grants employment benefitsYesPotentiallyYes

There is no right answer for structuring a relationship. The best contracts for your partnership depend on what you want from your future. The easiest way to decide is by considering which legal rights and protections matter most to you. There are certain situations where one contract may work better than another, though.

Domestic partnerships are often the best solution for people who want the permanency of marriage but do not want to get married. If you have a religious or ideological opposition to marriage, you may enter a domestic partnership to grant your partner similar rights without officially getting married.

If you are less concerned about permanency or intend to legally recognize your relationship in the future, a cohabitation agreement may be the right choice. These contracts may be used by couples who:

  • Already live together and intend to get married in the future
  • Intend to enter domestic partnerships but want to alter the terms of their relationship first
  • Are already in a domestic partnership, but what to change the terms after the fact
  • Do not need their relationship to be legally recognized but still want certain legal protections

In all these situations, cohabitation contracts can provide security for you and your partner. They provide clarity if you should disagree on property ownership, they can protect specific assets and inheritances, and they can lay down rules for how you will solve problems. As a result, they can help both parties feel safe enough to commit to a long-term relationship without worrying about what the future may bring.

Explore the Benefits of Cohabitation Agreements

Whether you plan on marrying your partner, entering a domestic partnership, or cohabitating with them for the foreseeable future, a cohabitation agreement can provide you both with extra legal protections. They can be used by any cohabitating couple to add boundaries and clarify legal concerns, making it easier to resolve disputes before they occur.

If you believe a cohabitation agreement may benefit your relationship, you can discuss your situation with the experts at Flicker, Kerin, Kruger & Bissada LLP. Reach out today to schedule a consultation and learn more about how a cohabitation agreement could support your relationship no matter what the future may bring.

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