What are the Legal Differences Between Marriage and Cohabitation?

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  • Written By: Felicia Dye
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 19 March 2019
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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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Post 3

While a couple may think cohabitation is a way of enjoying the benefits of marriage without making a legal commitment, this is not always true. In countries and states that recognize common law marriage, living together and then separating can lead to a series of legal issues surrounding who gets what and who is responsible for certain bills the couple made while together.

Ending a bad relationship in a common law state can be a lot like going through a divorce.

Post 2

The argument about living together before you are married makes for a happier marriage and less chance of divorce holds no water. There have been studies done and the numbers don't add up. If anything, cohabitation before marriage devalues the importance of marriage and makes people more likely to not take the commitment as seriously.

I am so tired of people using the need to get to know one another better as an excuse to live together and have sex before marriage. Most people who live together before marriage aren't even considering marriage at the time.

Post 1

I know many religions are against a couple living together before a marriage takes place, but I think this way of thinking is not good in terms of leading to a long marriage. Marriage is a binding agreement with documents and verbal agreements, and getting out is not as simple as getting in. You need to do everything possible to find out early on whether you have a good relationship or a bad relationship.

Living together before marriage is a good chance for a couple to figure out how life will be in marriage. When you have never lived with a person and then you marry there is a bigger adjustment. You might find out something in the first week of living with a person that is a deal breaker. Isn't it much better to find this out before you marry?

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