The Strength You Need In Adversity Empowering People & Their Families

Helping you resolve life's challenges to get you to a better place.

What is the legal difference between marriage and cohabitation?

Today, more and more Americans are choosing to live together and even start families together without getting married. However, it’s important to understand that cohabitating and starting a life together without entering marriage denies many of the legal benefits of marriage.

Before we discuss some of the legal benefits of marriage that do not apply to cohabitating couples it’s important to understand the legal difference between the two. According to, marriage is a legal union with certain requirements that vary from state to state. On the other hand, cohabitation has no formal requirements.

There are many benefits of marriage that are not bestowed among cohabitating couples, such as Social Security benefits and tax benefits, but we are going to focus on the legal benefits that apply after these relationships end in divorce.

While it can be economical for a couple to live together and share property, income and expenses, things can get messy when the relationship ends and it’s time to split property and debts. When a marriage ends, these issues are determined based on state divorce laws, but the laws don’t apply to cohabitating couples, which can result in conflict and uncertainty.

Additionally, when a marriage ends in Alabama, the laws afford each spouse a fair and equitable share of the marital properly, which is all property brought in by either spouse during the marriage. However, when a cohabitating couple splits, there are no legal guidelines in place, which means the property might not be decided fairly.

Another example of the legal protections provided by divorce is the availability of alimony. When one spouse earns significantly more than the other spouse, the lesser-earning spouse may be entitled to alimony when the marriage ends. However, when a cohabitating couple breaks up, the higher-earning person usually has no obligation to provide support to the lesser-earning person.

As you can see, there are many legal protections in place when a marriage ends that don’t apply to cohabitating couples. For that reason, it’s important for cohabitating couples to protect their rights in cohabitation agreements. These agreements are similar to prenuptial agreements in that they lay out the terms of a future breakup, including how property will be divided and whether alimony will be paid.