Cohabitation and the law

There seem to be misconceptions with regard to the legal rights of couples that choose to live together and not get legally married. On the surface, cohabitation seems to be a panacea for many couples, but it’s not as easy as that. To separate fact from fiction, I discussed the topic with family law attorney Rhonda Goodman.

DM: Many people believe that Florida recognizes cohabitation as a legal family status; is this true?

Goodman: Every marriage in Florida has to be solemnized under a license. As a result, Florida does not recognize common law or de facto marriage as valid.

DM: Given that Florida does not legally recognize cohabitation, what should couples in such relationships do to protect themselves?

Goodman: The couple should consider entering into a cohabitation agreement. It is a contract that can establish rights and obligations that are not afforded by law because of their unmarried status. It is similar to a pre- or post-nuptial agreement. It creates a framework in which the couple can structure their finances and relationship. A cohabitation agreement can also prepare the couple for events such as death, illness and separation. It can be used to address a wide range of issues, including day-to-day finances, asset and debt allocation, and support. Estate planning, beyond the preparation of a last will and testament, are also important.

DM: What are the ramifications for child support, parental responsibility and timesharing in a cohabitation relationship in Florida where the couple have minor children in common and never signed a cohabitation agreement?

Goodman: Child support will be determined pursuant to Florida Child Support Guidelines, a mathematical calculation based on both parent’s income. A parenting plan should be established, including parental responsibility and a time-sharing schedule. It will govern each parent’s relationship with the minor children. The best interest of the children will be the primary consideration. If they are a same-gender couple, there is usually a legal and non-legal parent. The non-legal parent may have no legal rights to the children. The parents may reach an agreement outside of court.

DM: Agreement or not, what are the legal rights of a party to spousal support or alimony in Florida, if they’ve been in a long-term cohabitating relationship?

Goodman: If they have an agreement, the legal rights should be determined pursuant to the agreement. Absent such an agreement, there may be no legal right to spousal support or alimony in Florida to an unmarried party.

DM: In Florida, if the relationship is ended by one of the parties, what happens to any assets or liabilities acquired during the cohabitating relationship?

Goodman: If there is no cohabitation agreement in place, the parties are left to come to an agreement as to the distribution of their assets and liabilities or turn to the courts. The parties can follow Florida law in the equitable distribution of their assets and liabilities similar to in a divorce.

Carlos Blanco founded Matters of Divorce <www.mattersofdivorce.com> to provide answers, referrals and support to people considering divorce or who recently have been divorced. He may be contacted by calling 305-908-1171 or sending email to cblanco@mattersofdivorce.com.


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