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"Living Together, Legally Prepared: Navigating Cohabitation Agreements with Attorney James Burns"

Posted by James Burns | Apr 10, 2024 | 0 Comments


In recent years, cohabitation has become increasingly common among couples in the United States. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, the number of unmarried partners living together nearly tripled from 1995 to 2018. With this shift in relationship dynamics, entering a cohabitation agreement before moving in together has gained importance. This legal document can protect both parties' interests and clarify financial arrangements, reducing potential conflicts.


Understanding Cohabitation Agreements


What is a Cohabitation Agreement?

A cohabitation agreement is a legally binding document between partners who live together but are not married. It outlines the distribution of assets and responsibilities during and potentially after the relationship.


  • Actionable Tip: Ensure the agreement includes details on property division, debt responsibility, and financial contributions to avoid ambiguity.


  • Common Mistake: Neglecting to update the agreement as circumstances change can lead to outdated terms that no longer reflect the couple's situation.


Relevance of California Law

In California, cohabitation agreements are recognized and can be enforced similarly to prenuptial agreements. The California Family Code and relevant case law, such as Marvin v. Marvin (1976), set the groundwork for these agreements, acknowledging the rights of unmarried couples.


One of the most famous cases that touch on the concept of property division among cohabiting partners who were never married is the case of Lee Marvin and Michelle Triola, known as Marvin v. Marvin. Although this case is not specifically about selling and splitting a home owned by one person before the coupling, it established important legal precedents regarding the rights of partners in non-marital relationships.

Marvin v. Marvin (1976)

Michelle Triola and actor Lee Marvin lived together for several years without being married. After their relationship ended, Triola claimed she was entitled to financial support and a share of the property they had accumulated during their time together. She argued that there was an implicit contract that she would be provided for financially during and after their relationship.

The California Supreme Court recognized that non-marital partners have the right to enforce express or implied contracts for financial support or property division. This case did not involve a jointly owned home sold and split, but it did set a precedent for the division of assets and financial support based on the agreements between cohabiting partners.

Key Points:

  • The court ruled that while the law did not recognize common-law marriages, adults who voluntarily live together and engage in a sexual relationship are free to contract regarding their earnings and property rights.
  • Michelle Triola, under the name Michelle Marvin, claimed she had given up her career and served as a homemaker and companion, expecting financial support in return.

Celebrity Case: Stieg Larsson and Eva Gabrielsson

Another notable situation, though not from a legal case in the United States, is that of Stieg Larsson, the Swedish author of the "Millennium" series, and his partner Eva Gabrielsson.

Larsson and Gabrielsson were partners for over 30 years but never married. When Larsson died suddenly in 2004, he left no will. According to Swedish law, Gabrielsson had no right to inherit Larsson's estate because they were not married and there was no will.

The entire estate, including the rights to Larsson's books, went to his family. Gabrielsson received nothing, despite their long-term relationship and her contributions. This situation led to a prolonged dispute between Larsson's family and Gabrielsson.

Key Points:

  • This case highlights the importance of having a will or cohabitation agreement, especially for unmarried couples, to ensure that property and assets are distributed according to their wishes.


  • It demonstrates how the lack of legal recognition for a partnership can lead to significant financial and emotional issues after one partner passes away.


These cases underscore the complexities of property and asset division among cohabiting partners, especially when one partner owned significant assets before the coupling. They highlight the importance of legal agreements that specify how property should be handled if the relationship ends.


  • Actionable Tip: Consult with a legal expert to align your cohabitation agreement with California's legal standards and Probate Codes.


  • Common Mistake: Assuming that cohabitation automatically grants rights akin to marriage can lead to legal misunderstandings.


Financial Arrangements

Handling Shared Expenses

Deciding how to split rent, utilities, and groceries is a key part of cohabiting. A clear plan can prevent disputes.


  • Actionable Tip: Establish a joint account for shared expenses while keeping personal finances separate.


  • Common Mistake: Failing to document contributions can lead to disagreements about financial equity.


Property and Asset Division

Determining who keeps what in the event of a separation is crucial. The agreement should address both jointly acquired assets and pre-cohabitation property.


  • Actionable Tip: Itemize and value assets before cohabitation to simplify division if necessary.


  • Common Mistake: Overlooking assets acquired during the cohabitation period can complicate separation processes.


Protecting Individual Rights

Privacy and Autonomy

While living together, maintaining individual rights and privacy is essential. This includes personal space, financial independence, and decision-making.


  • Actionable Tip: Clearly define personal boundaries and privacy expectations in the agreement.


  • Common Mistake: Ignoring personal autonomy can lead to conflicts and resentment.


Future Planning

Considerations for potential life changes, such as career moves, children, or separation, should be incorporated into the cohabitation agreement.


  • Actionable Tip: Include clauses for revisiting and amending the agreement as life circumstances evolve.


  • Common Mistake: Not planning for the future can leave partners unprepared for significant life events.


Real-Life Scenarios –


Example 1: Property Division

John and Jane, an unmarried couple, decided to move in together. They used a cohabitation agreement to specify that John, who contributed more to the purchase of their home, would receive a proportionately larger share if they separated. When they eventually parted ways, the agreement facilitated a fair division of the property.


Example 2: Financial Contributions

Tom and Lisa agreed that Tom would pay 70% of the monthly expenses due to his higher income. Their cohabitation agreement detailed this arrangement, preventing disputes over financial contributions when they later faced relationship challenges.


Long-Term Relationship Considerations

Planning for the Long Haul

Couples should consider long-term implications of their cohabitation, including retirement planning, inheritance, and potential health care directives.


  • Actionable Tip: Incorporate retirement savings and inheritance plans into your cohabitation agreement to ensure long-term financial security.


  • Common Mistake: Ignoring the need for a will or estate plan can lead to unintended consequences in asset distribution.


Conflict Resolution

Managing Disputes

Establishing a method for resolving disagreements is an essential component of a cohabitation agreement.

  • Actionable Tip: Agree on a mediation or arbitration process to resolve conflicts without resorting to litigation.


  • Common Mistake: Failing to have a dispute resolution plan in place can lead to costly and stressful court battles.


There are real-life scenarios, though not always highly publicized, where cohabitation arrangements lead to complex legal disputes after one partner dies. In these cases, the surviving partner may not have a legal right to stay in the property, especially if the deceased partner's heirs decide to sell it. While I don't have a specific celebrity case that matches this scenario exactly, the following illustrates a common situation that can arise in the absence of clear legal agreements:

Fictional Scenario: The Case of John and Mary

John and Mary lived together in John's house for 20 years, but they were never married, and John never updated his will to include Mary. When John suddenly died, his adult children from a previous marriage inherited the house, as per John's will.

The Dispute:
Mary considered the house her home and wanted to continue living there, but John's children wanted to sell the property. With no cohabitation agreement or will specifying Mary's rights, she legally had no claim to the property.

The Outcome:
The situation led to a legal dispute, with Mary arguing that she had contributed to the home's upkeep and improvements, believing she had a right to remain there. However, without legal documentation to support her claim, the children had the legal right to evict her and proceed with the sale.

This fictional scenario underlines the importance of having a cohabitation agreement or a clear will. A cohabitation agreement could have defined what would happen to the property in the event of John's death, potentially allowing Mary to remain in the home or receive a share of the sale proceeds. Similarly, a will that explicitly included Mary could have protected her right to the property.

In real life, these kinds of disputes can be emotionally charged and legally complex. They highlight the need for individuals in cohabiting relationships to consider their legal rights and put appropriate agreements in place to protect those rights, particularly concerning property and inheritance.

Children and Dependents

Caring for Children or Dependents

If children or dependents are involved, the agreement should address their care and financial support.


  • Actionable Tip: Clearly define responsibilities for dependents, including education, health care, and living expenses.


  • Common Mistake: Overlooking the needs of children or dependents can result in inadequate support or care arrangements.


Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts

Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts were one of the most talked-about couples in the early 1990s. They bought a home together before their planned wedding in 1991, which Roberts called off just days before the ceremony. While they did not have a cohabitation agreement, their breakup led to disputes over the property they shared. This case underscores the importance of having a clear legal agreement in place when purchasing property together, irrespective of the relationship's future.

Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis

Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis were in a relationship for 14 years and had two children together. They shared several properties around the world, including a home in France. Although they split amicably in 2012 and details of their financial arrangement were not publicly disclosed, their situation illustrates how significant assets can be involved in long-term cohabitations. A cohabitation agreement could serve as a clear guideline for asset division, should the relationship end.

In these instances, while not all led to legal battles, the potential for dispute over shared assets was significant. Cohabitation agreements could provide a framework for asset division, reducing the risk of loss or protracted legal disputes after a breakup. These cases illustrate the importance of legal foresight and the potential utility of cohabitation agreements in protecting the interests of both parties in a long-term, non-marital relationship.

Sample Accord:

A cohabitation agreement in California typically contains several key elements that outline the terms of the relationship between the parties involved. Here's an example of what some sections of this agreement might look like:

Cohabitation Agreement

Between: Jane Doe ("Partner 1") John Smith ("Partner 2")

Date: [Date]

Recitals: The parties are in a domestic partnership and cohabit at [Address]. They wish to define their financial and property rights and responsibilities during their cohabitation.

1. Property Ownership and Division 1.1 The parties acknowledge that each party enters the cohabitation with personal property described in Schedule A (attached), which shall remain the separate property of each. 1.2 Any property acquired jointly during the cohabitation will be divided equally, unless otherwise agreed in writing.

2. Financial Arrangements 2.1 Each party will contribute to joint living expenses, including rent, utilities, and groceries, as detailed in Schedule B. 2.2 Separate bank accounts will be maintained, and each party will have individual financial responsibilities as outlined in this agreement.

3. Dispute Resolution 3.1 In the event of any disputes arising from this agreement, the parties agree first to seek resolution through mediation before pursuing any legal action.

4. Amendment and Termination 4.1 This agreement may be amended or terminated only by a written agreement signed by both parties.


[Signature, Partner 1] [Date]

[Signature, Partner 2] [Date]

Schedules: A - List of Separate Property B - Financial Contributions and Responsibilities

This example is simplified and should be customized based on the specific needs and circumstances of the parties involved. Consulting with a legal expert, such as those at the Law Office of James Burns, is essential to ensure the agreement is comprehensive and legally binding.

Legal Disclaimer:

This document is provided as an example and is incomplete. It is not intended to serve as legal advice or a comprehensive cohabitation agreement. This example may be insufficient to meet your specific needs and should not be used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. Laws and legal requirements can vary significantly based on individual circumstances and jurisdictions. We strongly recommend consulting with a qualified attorney, such as those at the Law Office of James Burns, to ensure that any legal agreements you enter into are appropriate, valid, and enforceable under California law.

Action Steps

Cohabitation agreements provide a safety net for unmarried couples living together, ensuring that both parties' interests are protected and that arrangements are clear. By considering the tips and avoiding the mistakes outlined above, couples can establish a strong foundation for their cohabitation journey.


For those residing in California, navigating the specifics of a cohabitation agreement requires knowledgeable legal assistance. The Law Office of James Burns has been serving Californians with estate and asset protection services for over 24 years. For expert advice and assistance in drafting a comprehensive cohabitation agreement, contact the Law Office of James Burns at (949) 305-8642 or visit


About the Author

James Burns

Estate Planning, Asset Protection, Business and Real Estate Transactions, nutraceutical Law and franchising:


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