Types of Legal Cohabitation in North Carolina

By Mary Jane Freeman
Living together has its perks, just not the ones given to married couples.

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North Carolina law defines cohabitation as two romantically involved adults living together without the benefits of marriage. Although the Tar Heel state recognizes cohabitation, there are no special rights or protections afforded to those who "shack up." In fact, it was illegal to do so until 2006, when a court struck down the centuries-old law forbidding cohabitation as unconstitutional. While now you can live with your girlfriend or boyfriend, don't expect the court to sort out your affairs if you break up. You'll have to draft up your own agreement to do that.

When Cohabitation Is Similar to Marriage

Although you and your romantic partner may live under the same roof, North Carolina judges are unlikely to immediately label the arrangement as cohabitation. To find whether a living situation is cohabitation, judges look at whether you have taken on roles and responsibilities similar to that of a married couple, such as having sex, raising children, accruing debts together, securing medical and insurance policies for each other and sharing household chores and expenses.

Cohabitation Carries No Legal Protections

Couples who live together but never marry have no special legal status in North Carolina and are afforded no special rights or protections, unlike married couples. This means that if they eventually break up, they can't ask a North Carolina judge to resolve the problems and disagreements arising from the relationship. For example, the judge will not award alimony to one party or equitably divide the couple's property when the relationship ends -- something the court can do for divorcing couples.

Cohabitation Agreements

Since cohabiting couples have no special status under state law, they must take other steps to protect themselves in the event of a future break up. You can do this by creating a cohabitation agreement. This is a plan that outlines a couple's individual rights and responsibilities if and when the relationship ends. A cohabitation agreement is enforceable in a court of law. For example, the contract can identify how you'll divide the property you purchased together if you split. It can also discuss how you'll divide debts and obligations and whether one of you will financially support the other for a limited time after the split.

Registering as a Domestic Partnership

Generally, a domestic partnership is one in which two unmarried adults live together in a manner similar to married couples. Depending on the city in which you live, you may be able to register your relationship as a domestic partnership. For example, in Chapel Hill, you can register at the town's Communications and Public Affairs Department, where you'll affirm the relationship in front of a Chapel Hill employee who is also a notary public, as well as pay a registration fee. If your relationship ends, you can also register the dissolution in the same way. In Asheville, unmarried same-sex couples can register as domestic partners on the city's same-sex registry. You can do this by signing an affidavit in the city clerk's office and paying the required fee. Registering your relationship gives it legal recognition and it becomes a matter of public record. This can often help unmarried cohabiting couples receive benefits from hospitals, employers, businesses and other establishments.

About the Author

Based on the West Coast, Mary Jane Freeman has been writing professionally since 1994, specializing in the topics of business and law. Freeman's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including LegalZoom, Essence, Reuters and Chicago Sun-Times. Freeman holds a Master of Science in public policy and management and Juris Doctor. Freeman is self-employed and works as a policy analyst and legal consultant.

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