Living on Love: Considerations for Cohabitants

Jeff Cranford, Attorney

Wimberly Lawson Wright Daves & Jones, PLLC

Couples of all ages are choosing cohabitation over marriage for a number of reasons. Some are giving marriage a “trial run,” some move in together to save money, and some live together with no plans to marry. Whatever the reason, parties need to understand the legal consequences of their relationships in case the relationship ends due to separation or death.

A recent Tennessee Court of Appeals Court illustrates the pitfalls of not knowing.

Johnny and Margaret met in California and began living together in the early 2000’s. They decided to move to Tennessee where Johnny was building a home. He promised to marry Margaret and provide for her financially if she would quit her job in California, retire early, and move to live with him in Tennessee. He also amended his will to provide for her, but it was conditioned on them being married and living together. After moving to Tennessee, they never married; they lived together and Johnny continued to support Margaret financially until he died.

There was no plan for support for Margaret after Johnny died. His will only left her a home and financial support if they were married. She had no right to real property or financial accounts. Margaret filed a claim against the estate for “palimony,” a common law right in California that allows members of a non-married couple to obtain financial support or a portion of the assets of the relationship when the couple was not legally married. However, Tennessee does not recognize palimony, and Tennessee law governed her claim against the estate.

Approximately 50% of marriages end in divorce, and while there are no statistics on the number of cohabiting relationships that end, one could assume the number was at least as high. In either case, parties to a relationship in which finances and property are so intermingled need to know their legal rights. A lawyer can help couples draft written agreements, plan their estates, and title property in ways to protect their financial interests even if they are not married. Doing so can help a party avoid the unfortunate consequences that Margaret suffered.