What Are the Legal Differences between Marriage and Cohabitation?

In cohabitation, there is no legal responsibility binding one partner to the other.
A married person is not free to have intimate relations with other people, whereas with cohabitation, there is no legal threat to doing this.
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  • Written By: Felicia Dye
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 25 August 2014
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Marriage and cohabitation are two types of intimate arrangements, and each has its pros and cons. Cohabitation is the act of living together without a legally recognized union. This allows individuals to to part ways with less difficulty than if they were married. A marriage is a legally binding agreement that grants each partner a wider range of rights and responsibilities. Ending this type of relationship requires a legal procedure.

Although people commonly insist that a piece of paper, referring to the marriage license, is the only difference between marriage and cohabitation, this is far from being true. A marriage license is a document that drastically alters a relationship. One major way that it does this is by preserving the relationship even if one or both partners walk away. Marriages do not simply dissolve because individuals do not like the way that things are going and wish to invest their energy elsewhere. Instead, a couple must go through a divorce and have a court terminate their relationship.


When two people cohabit, they live according to an agreement that may be based on a number of factors, such as emotions or financial convenience, but generally there is no legal responsibility binding one to the other. If the moment arises when the situation no longer seems suitable, both parties can instantly sever their ties. In most jurisdictions, there is not a special body of law regulating how cohabitants' property should be divided or how the least financially fit partner should be cared for after the break up. With married partners, however, these are major considerations.

Another major difference between marriage and cohabitation is liberty. When people marry, they take vows, which are legal and usually religiously sanctioned promises. A married person is not free to enter into intimate relations with other people. In addition to the threat of divorce and the financial ramifications that it can have for the guilty party, it is also possible in many jurisdictions for one spouse to sue another for adultery. When people cohabitate, relinquishing the liberty to intimately fraternize with others is a choice, and if a person act contrarily, it poses no legal threat.

Marriage and cohabitation also differ with regard to the decision-making. Spouses belong to one another, and if there is a life or death decision to be made and one person is unable to do so, her partner will be called upon to act on her behalf. When individuals are cohabitating, they do not generally gain the right or responsibility of making decisions for their partners, no matter how long they stay together. If one person becomes seriously ill and cannot make medical decisions for herself, a legal family member will usually be consulted. Furthermore, cohabitating partners may not even have the right to be informed of the details surrounding their partner's condition.


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