Marriage vs. Cohabitation

by Shelley Frost ; Updated December 11, 2017

Should you get married or just move in together? In the married vs. living together debate, both sides have advantages and disadvantages legally, financially and even emotionally. Breaking down the marriage and cohabitation pros and cons helps determine which option is best for your relationship.

Entering the Arrangement

Cohabitation is easy to do. Simply move in together. You don't have to get a license or meet any special requirements to cohabit with your partner. Some people choose to cohabit before getting married or while waiting to meet the requirements for marriage. Others decide the easy arrangement is the best option permanently.

Marriage has more requirements, including a minimum age. Each state sets the specific requirements for marriage, so the steps may vary somewhat. Usually, you can expect to apply for a marriage license and have a ceremony with someone qualified to be an officiant and witnesses. You may also need to have blood tests done or go through a waiting period before marrying.

Ending the Arrangement

Just like ending a cohabitation situation is easier, so is leaving one, at least from a legal standpoint. If you sign a lease together, you may need to fulfill the obligations of the lease or deal with the consequences of breaking it. You also have to divide the possessions you share, although this can lead to the potential for conflict since there's no law defining how to split the items. But you don't have to go through a formal process to stop living together.

Ending a marriage requires legal steps. You need to get a divorce, legal separation or annulment. These options all require lots of paperwork. You may have to wait a certain length of time before the dissolution of marriage is final. The divorce laws in your state might require certain methods for dividing property. You'll also face a lot of expense for lawyers, court fees and other related expenses.

Financial Obligations and Benefits

The financial obligations of splitting up are also a little different if you're married vs. cohabiting. In a married couple, the spouse who makes more money may be required to pay financial support to the other spouse. If you're just living together, you won't likely have to pay support if you're the higher-earning partner. If you make less or don't work and rely on your partner for financial support, you may be on your own without that income if you split while cohabiting.

If your spouse dies, you legally inherit part of the estate because you are married. If you live with your partner without being married, you have no legal claim to the estate unless your partner specifically lists you in the will. Without a will listing you, the estate goes to family members per the laws established in your state.

Decision-Making Powers

A spouse automatically has the right to make decisions on behalf of the other person should that person become sick or incompetent. The spouse can make health care and financial decisions. If you cohabit, you won't automatically get those same rights. Immediate family members may be able to make those decisions on behalf of your partner unless you have authority to make those decisions through power of attorney. This can cause conflict or leave you shut out of decisions when your partner is unable to do so.

Special Considerations for Couples With Kids

Thinking about having kids with your partner? Whether you choose cohabitation or marriage can affect the rights and obligations of the father. When you're married, it's automatically assumed that the husband and wife are the biological parents. If you're just living together, that same assumption doesn't happen. The dad may have to prove he's the father through paternity tests and legal steps.

When you're married, both parties are financially responsible for the child. Should you divorce, the courts will likely require the non-custodial parent to pay child support. If you're cohabiting and paternity has not been established, the father does not have a financial obligation to the child. That doesn't mean he can't or shouldn't support the child, but the law doesn't require him to do so until paternity is established. If you split up while cohabiting with kids, the non-custodial parent will have to financially support the child if paternity is established.

Emotional Considerations

Living together without being married can undermine the sense of commitment in some couples. Because it's so easy to leave a cohabitation situation, you may feel less secure in the relationship. For some people, cohabitation causes partners to depend on one another less than married couples since the relationship may appear less committed and a little riskier. Married couples tend to take better care of one another and look out for each other.

About the Author

Based in the Midwest, Shelley Frost has been writing parenting and education articles since 2007. Her experience comes from teaching, tutoring and managing educational after school programs. Frost worked in insurance and software testing before becoming a writer. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education with a reading endorsement.