Marriage vs. Cohabitation

by Paige Johansen

The New York Times reports that within the last 50 years, cohabitation rates have risen 1,500 percent, with more than 7.5 million unmarried people now living with a partner. Marriage is a legally binding agreement between two people who must meet specific state-regulated age and blood test requirements in order to enter into that agreement. The agreement comes with official rights and responsibilities. Cohabitation, on the other hand, is a personal agreement between two people and has no regulated rights or responsibilities.

Rights of Marriage

Marriage gives a spouse the right to make financial and other decisions for a spouse who is ill or otherwise incompetent and ensures hospital visitation rights. The death of a spouse results in inheritance rights. Spouses may also save money on health care or taxes, although this depends on the particular situation. In the case of cohabitation, all health and inheritance issues are determined by a will or by a power of attorney.


Children born to married parents are considered the children of both parents, thus they both have legal rights and responsibilities for that child, as well as financial responsibilities in the event of a divorce. If babies are born during cohabitation, only a paternity test can determine the father's rights and responsibilities. Cohabiting partners may split up at any time and have no financial responsibilities toward one another; in the case of a marriage, couples must legally separate and divide property in a specified way. The higher earning partner in a marriage may have financial obligations toward the lower earning partner.

The Cohabitation Effect

Cohabitation before marriage has been correlated with higher likelihood of divorce. A 2012 article in The New York Times explains that this phenomenon is likely because couples may decide to live together partially for reasons of convenience or finances, and each partner may have different expectations about future commitment. When couples talk about their level of commitment and motivations for living together or are engaged before cohabiting, the likelihood of a successful marriage increases significantly.

Common Law Marriage

Some states recognize a common law marriage for couples who consider themselves married but have never officially gotten married. A popular myth suggests that such a marriage is created after seven years of living together, but there is no such specific requirement. Usually the requirements relate to how long a couple has lived together and if they are considered a married couple by their community. When a common law marriage is recognized, the couple has the same rights and responsibilities as a regular marriage.

About the Author

Paige Johansen has been writing professionally since 2003. She holds a B.A. in psychology and English from Cornell University and an M.F.A. in fiction writing from The University of Virginia. Between degrees, she worked in the fashion industry for two years.

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