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Living together? Money mistakes to avoid

More couples are cohabitating without the legal benefits of marriage. Here are some basics they need to know.

By Stacy Johnson Oct 21, 2010 1:31PM

This post comes from Stacy Johnson at partner site Money Talks News.


Here are some sobering statistics:

  • 7.5 million opposite-sex couples are living together -- 13% more than this time last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • Nearly half (47%) of adults in their 30s and 40s have lived with someone in a sexual relationship, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
  • That same survey says 41% of couples living together don't really care about getting married.

I call these statistics sobering not because I'm passing moral judgment but because I suspect that many unmarried couples haven't properly considered the financial ramifications of living together. That's a mistake, because they're not afforded the same protections and advantages that married couples have.

Books, magazines and the Internet are full of financial advice for the newly engaged. (Money Talks News has provided advice for everything from wedding insurance and divorce insurance to money and marriage.) So here's some financial advice for the unmarried.


All young couples who split up face the issue of "this is yours, that is mine" -- from books and CDs to pets and furniture. But living together as you get older (and hopefully wealthier) can pose problems you need to be aware of and plan for.


The key thing for singles to remember, whether gay or straight: When it comes to money, the law doesn't recognize any relationship unless it's documented with paper. Consider the following:


How to buy half a house

With home prices and mortgage rates at their lowest in years, unmarried couples may decide to not only move in together, but buy their own place. This could be a great move, but be aware of potential problems.


First and foremost, keep in mind what I said above: The law cares only about paperwork. The house belongs to the person whose name appears on the legally recorded deed. The law could care less who paid how much, or what verbal agreements were made.

  • The deed. If you're buying a house together, put both parties on the deed. The two basic ways of taking title with other people are joint tenancy with right of survivorship and tenancy in common. The difference is that with right of survivorship, your interest in the property automatically transfers to the other owner if you die. With tenancy in common, it doesn't. If you're going in on a house together and want your partner to have your share if you die, use joint tenancy with right of survivorship. If you'd rather leave your home equity to your parents, your siblings or somebody else, take title as tenants in common.
  • The mortgage. Remember that if you both apply for the mortgage, you're both responsible for paying it -- even after you break up. Also keep in mind that if both parties are on the deed as owners, but only one is on the mortgage, the one responsible for the mortgage remains responsible even after moving out.

Here's another common scenario: John already owns a house, then Jane moves in and, because she makes more than John, proceeds to make the monthly mortgage payments. Is Jane then entitled to any of the equity she's creating by paying down John's mortgage? No. Absent a legal document to the contrary, it's John's house and his equity.


Where there's a will, there's a way

It's bad enough when married couples don't have a will, especially when it's so easy to do. (See "3 ways to get a will.") But even without a will, the law won't leave a surviving spouse high and dry, because the law has a piece of paper -- a marriage certificate. If you're married and die without a will, your estate will eventually go to your spouse, because according to the law, your spouse is basically your next of kin.


If you're unmarried and die without a will, your estate will still go to your next of kin -- but it will be your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. -- not your partner. If you don't relish the idea of your distant Uncle Jake evicting your partner of 20 years from the house you forgot to put in his or her name, you'd best get a will.


Also, if you're rich -- say with assets exceeding $1 million -- you could have estate tax issues that married people don't have to deal with. Talking to an estate attorney is a good idea.


A taxing health care plan

These days, many big companies and governments extend health insurance coverage to unmarried couples -- unromantically labeled as domestic partners. To your employer, it doesn't matter if you're hitched or not. But it matters to the IRS.


If you're married, the IRS doesn't tax your health benefits, nor does it tax the benefits your spouse receives under your health insurance plan. But if you're providing your partner with health care benefits, those benefits could be taxable to you. In other words, if John covers Jane as a domestic partner under his employer-sponsored health plan, John could be taxed by Uncle Sam for any benefit extended to Jane.


How can this be? Federal tax law specifically excludes employee benefits received by spouses from taxation. But the IRS doesn't recognize domestic partners -- no marriage certificate, no exemption. As far as the IRS is concerned, John got extra money from his employer and gave it to Jane. Now he's going to be taxed on it.


So if John's and Jane's employers both pay for health coverage, they're better off keeping them separate. If John has coverage and Jane doesn't, they have to make a calculation: Do John's extra taxes exceed what it would cost Jane to get a private health insurance policy? The correct path will depend on John's tax bracket and Jane's cost of health insurance.

But there's something else Jane should consider: Suppose she develops a health condition that renders her uninsurable while covered under John's policy. She can't be kicked off of John's policy, but what if they break up? Now she's sick, doesn't have insurance, and can't get any. Starting in 2014, this won't be an issue -- thanks to health care reform, Jane can't be turned down for insurance due to a pre-existing condition. But until then, she'd better be sure that John isn't going to leave her in what could be a precarious position.



Another health-related issue: If one partner has a medical emergency, absent paper to the contrary, the other has no visitation rights and may not even get details about what's going on.


The solution is a piece of paper called an advance health care directive, which allows each of you to legally make decisions if the other is incapacitated. It also allows hospitals to share information usually reserved for spouses. Like a will, these directives aren't hard to get. Your hospital or county health department can give you the form, or you can download one online.


Marriage without paper

There is one situation where a heterosexual couple living together can enjoy the rights of marriage without getting hitched the traditional way: They can claim a common law marriage -- which is recognized by law in 15 states.


But if you think a common law marriage is created simply by living together, you're wrong. According to, these couples must:

  • Live together for a significant period of time (not defined in any state).
  • Hold themselves out as a married couple -- i.e., share a last name, refer to each other as husband and wife, and file a joint tax return. 
  • Intend to be married.

Keep in mind that the burden of proving you're a common law married couple will fall to you -- it's not automatic. Once you've proved it, you'll then have the privileges of married couples -- including the privilege of going through a legal divorce if you break up.


Now you can see that living together isn't as simple as it may at first seem -- and the longer you stay together without tying the knot, the more complicated it can become. The solution? Paper, of course. Think it through, talk it out, and draw it up. 


More from Money Talks News and MSN Money:

Oct 22, 2010 1:18PM
Why get married? It might be a little more work to get all the legal documents in order but you can essentially have most/all of the benefits of being married without the cost of being married. No wedding costs and no marriage tax penalty. $200,000 single or $250,000 married. That is fair how? Stay "single" and be roommates and then you can make $200,000 each or $400,000 total. Those might be extreme numbers but there is a marriage penalty at every tax level.
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