Cohabiting is a huge commitment that will take your relationship to sublime new highs – that moment when someone has dinner waiting for you after a rough day – to ridiculous new lows – you discover that the person you’ve just decided to share a bathroom and all your bills with doesn’t actually like the Ikea meatballs.
As you breeze through the market hall, looking lovingly into their eyes while trying to get them to agree to buying things you definitely don’t need – a shapely decanter named STORSINT and BEKVÄM, a cute stool you’ve set your sights on even though it wouldn’t really serve any purpose – the last thing on your mind is what would happen to STORSINT, BEKVÄM, the joint credit card you’re about to pay for them with and your monthly rent or mortgage payments should you break up.
But sadly, it probably should be. Specifically, you should be drawing up a cohabitation agreement to make sure you’re protected if the worst happens. In recent years the number of cohabiting unmarried couples has risen sharply. According to the Office for National Statistics, they're the fastest growing family type. However, unlike married couples, cohabiting couples have relatively few protections so if things do go wrong, it can get messy. Like, really messy.
Georgina Rayment, head of family law at Ipswich-based lawyers Prettys, says that to avoid this you need to use your head before your heart when you first start cohabiting. "It’s the equivalent of a prenup for the unmarried," she explains, "and can offer protection for both individuals as they enter the next stage of their relationship, because the law currently does not protect cohabitees to the same extent as spouses. Lack of clarity about finances during the relationship can therefore sometimes lead to legal outcomes that may feel unfair to one half of the couple."
It’s uncomfortable to talk about breaking up when you’re madly in love and embarking on a beautiful journey together but the alternative is far more uncomfortable. Do you remember those Sex and the City episodes when Aidan moves in with Carrie? Do you remember how romantic it is when he becomes her white knight, buying her apartment and the one next to it when her building becomes a co-op? Do you remember how, when they break up shortly afterwards while he’s in the middle of demolishing a wall, he sends her a curt legal letter saying she has to buy him out or leave her home?
Cohabitation agreements are signed by both partners and, Georgina explains, "usually relate to financial issues such as rent payments, mortgages and running the home. They are not legally binding but are often taken into consideration if a later separation is unfortunately followed by legal proceedings."
In my experience, women aren’t encouraged to talk about money or to put their financial wellbeing first in a relationship. The tide is turning, though. With the publication of books like Alex Holder’s Open Up: Why Talking About Money Will Change Your Life and Instagram accounts like My Frugal Year, the taboo which, for too long, has shrouded women’s money in shame and mystery is slowly being lifted. We know that growing numbers of women are ditching joint bank accounts and opting to keep their money separate from their partner’s; it follows that cohabitation agreements could become the new normal, too.
Georgina says there are five reasons why you and your partner should consider a cohabitation agreement as you take the step of moving in together:
A cohabitation agreement will make it crystal clear who is contributing what
"What a lot of people don’t understand is that, depending how the mortgage and bills are split and paid, the partner who doesn’t own the home could be building a share of the equity in the property," Georgina explains. "If a couple ends up separating, the homeowner could find their ex has a claim to a share of the equity – and the property may ultimately have to be sold. Having a cohabitation agreement removes this uncertainty and leaves everyone clear on who is paying what and where they each stand."
If you're renting, a cohabitation agreement could spell out how much each partner pays in rent and what happens to your bills and joint obligations – such as credit cards or loans – in the event of a relationship breakdown. The last thing you want is for one partner to leave abruptly and stop paying because you never made a plan.
Cohabitation agreements encourage honest conversations
"If you decide to take the plunge and move in together, a cohabitation agreement gives both sides the opportunity to have a positive, honest conversation about how the bills will be paid, which is a solid start to any long-term relationship," Georgina says. Hard to argue with that!
You will avoid conflict further down the line
Break-ups are always bad, even when they’re good. "When a relationship comes to an end, all good intentions can be lost in the heat of emotion," Georgina says. "Having an agreement in place at the start is practical so can help avoid that. Once signed, you can file the agreement away and get on with your life. It just means you have something to refer back to later in case of any split. Providing there has been no misrepresentation or coercion and everyone understands their rights, an agreement is more likely to hold weight if it is needed in court."
An agreement removes any vagueness
Leaving things unsaid might be the easy option but in the event of an emotionally fraught break-up, it will cause confusion and further heartache. Georgina says that a cohabitation agreement "will illustrate that significant financial contributions are being made by both parties on matters such as the mortgage, rent, utility bills, debt repayments or other big outgoings like a new boiler."
This, she adds, means that if one partner pays for something – a holiday or some fitted wardrobes, for instance – then they are "making an informed decision" and it is agreed whether they see that as an investment in a property (if one or both of you own it) or as money they expect to be repaid (if you’re renting).
People do daft stuff when they're hurting. Having a document to refer back to can minimise this.
Nothing is permanent
Cohabitation agreements can be reviewed or amended at any time, Georgina concludes. "You can review them in case of life-changing events, such as having a child," she explains, "or if one partner falls ill or is made redundant," which means that your agreement can actually serve as a guide to steer you through difficult times and decisions.
Sex and the City contained many questionable messages but 'don’t be like Carrie, ever' and 'you need to draw up a cohabitation agreement' weren’t among them.