Cohabitants and Cosigners – Your Legal Rights as an Unmarried Couple

All relationships are different. Though the commitment of marriage may provide a couple with new legal rights and financial benefits, many couples choose not to marry. New studies show that nearly a quarter of millennial couples stray away from traditional marriage based on their circumstances. Even though you aren’t married, you both have rights as cohabitants; additionally, if you choose to split, there are avenues for former partners to pursue something reminiscent of divorce. Read on to learn about: 

  • A Few Benefits and How to Get Them for When It Matters Most;
  • Cohabitation Rights: Owning Property as Partners; and
  • Splitting Up as a Couple and as Property Owners

Knowing Your Entitlements Where It Matters

For couples not in a legally recognized marriage, there are still benefits you personally can collect and those that you can collect as partners. 

First, you do not need to be married to be a dependent. Part of Maryland Law’s criteria for claiming adults as dependent involves your relationship to that adult. For example, you must be in a “qualifying relationship” with the adult; this includes siblings, aunts, uncles, in-laws, parents, and, most importantly, partners. 

However, to be fully eligible, you must also meet the following criteria: 

  • Must pay at least 50% of the adult’s support and expenses; 
  • Satisfy a living requirement of at least one year with your partner; 
  • Your partner’s gross income cannot exceed $4,150; and 
  • Your partner cannot be claimed as a dependent by anyone else. 

Should your partner qualify for dependency, you could qualify for benefits under the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act should anything happen to your partner (and vice versa). If in the tragic case your partner—the working partner—dies in or from a workplace-related injury, you can claim benefits if you were a dependent. In cases where a partner dies from causes not related to their compensable injury, you may claim their total or partial disability compensation. If the death occurs within seven years of the work-related injury, a dependent partner receives death benefits from their deceased partner. 

Other areas involving the death of a partner, such as a last Will and Testaments, are a bit more limiting. If your partner dies, you do not have any automatic right to inheritance without a Will in place. Intestacy rules determine who benefits from an estate after someone dies, and they typically don’t include unmarried partners. However, both you and your partner can leave each other property in each other’s Wills. 

Tax-wise, it is complicated; tax laws change very often, and it is best to refer to the IRS website to see if there are any benefits available come tax season. Generally, though, unmarried couples are not able to file joint tax returns. 

Property, Deeds, and Tenancy 

If you and your partner want to own property together, you can enter into joint ownership with them. In Maryland, there are a few ways this looks. 

For one, you will want to keep in mind that obtaining a holding title to a piece of property is a legal process. The deed to a piece of property shows a legal record of ownership and is filed with the Maryland Land Records Department. Likewise, in case of death, a surviving co-owner can take full ownership of the property through a built-in right of survivorship in the holding title. 

Types of tenancy for unmarried couples in Maryland takes two forms: 

  • Tenancy in Common: a form of joint ownership with two or three “tenants in common,” who own a specific share of the property or equal shares. They can use the full property to their content through undivided interest. This option does not allow for the right of survivorship. 
  • Joint Tenancy: includes two or more “joint tenants” with an undivided interest in the property and right of survivorship. There is no requirement the parties are married or related. However, as mentioned, this is a legal process and requires specific language in the deed itself. There’s also a required “four unities of interest” involving the joint tenants’ time, title, interest, and possession regarding the property and when they claim it. Additionally, this option does allow for the right of survivorship. 

Regardless of which path you choose, make sure you talk it out thoroughly with your partner. These types of discussions are important when considering the next steps of your relationship, especially if you are planning on being unmarried cohabitants. 

Nonetheless, taking your relationship to the legal level is serious. You should not hesitate to contact an attorney to talk about any potential big decisions. 

Does Property Split Between Cohabitants? 

Unlike a married couple, there is no set ‘divorce process’ for cohabitant partners. You can, however, put together a “living-together contract,” which may help you sort out assets, support, and liabilities should you split in the future. 

Though it is not divorce, you can still consult an attorney about this process. Mainly, you might want them to review the agreement and assess whether it’s a good idea to sign it. Having an attorney on your side to make sure the contract is legitimate and fair never hurts. 

Definitely call an attorney if you want the contract to last into a perspective marriage, though. In this event, you and your partner have the opportunity to discuss which pieces of property you consider “in” the relationship and owned by both, along with guidelines for supporting one another financially, living arrangements, child custody (if applicable), or procedures for changing the contract. 

With unmarried couples property rights, especially real estate, you will want to consider your ownership arrangement; did you choose tenancy in common or joint tenancy? Regardless, you have a few options for how you approach division. Since you most likely have a share in the property, you will not lose that just because you broke up with your partner. Rather, you’ll keep it and have the ability to do whatever you want with it. Some may suggest refinancing the mortgage in one person’s name only or one person keeping the home until the housing loan is paid off. This is something you could handle in your “living-together contract.” 

If you rely on both your incomes to pay for the property, though, do not wait to make a determination. Repossession of your home, vehicle, or any major pieces of property purchased during your relationship or cohabitation results in a hit on your credit scores: something neither of you needs. 

Contact our offices for a free initial consultation if you and your partner need help to discuss the next steps in your relationship. Our adaptable attorneys are here to help you secure a fairer future for yourself.

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