Cohabitation vs. marriage – the legal differences
As featured on FIN24
For various reasons, marriage is not for everyone. Some prefer not to marry as a matter of principle; some can’t marry (for example if one party is waiting for a divorce to come through). Others want to live together prior to marriage, to road-test their compatibility. Whatever the motive, the status of cohabitation is generally socially acceptable in South Africa and we often hear the term ‘life partners’ used for committed, cohabitative relationships where there is no marriage.
However, in South Africa there is no ‘law of cohabitation’ and cohabitation is not a recognised legal relationship. Notwithstanding, there are legal consequences of cohabitation and some legislation defines ‘spouse’ in such a way that includes a partner in a cohabitative relationship.
What is cohabitation?
Cohabitation refers to a stable, monogamous relationship in which the couple, either male-female or same-sex, chooses not to marry but to live together as spouses. Familiar terms for cohabitation include living together, shacking up, de facto marriage, quasi-marriage, common-law marriage, domestic partnership or private marriage. A cohabitative relationship looks to the observer exactly like a marriage. The only distinguishing feature is the lack of legal sanction.
Cohabitation is defined differently in different legal systems, but there are three universal components: a sexual relationship between the couple, a factual cohabitative relationship (i.e. they live in the same home), and stability of the relationship. There may also be a requirement for a sense of responsibility for each other.
Common-law marriage – quashing the myth
Many people believe that if a couple cohabitates for a long period of time, the same marital rights apply that spouses in a marriage enjoy…that a ‘common-law’ marriage exists. This misconception exists in many jurisdictions but it is just that – a misconception. There is no such thing as common-law marriage.
Despite the lack of legal status, the South African courts have ruled that there may be an express or implied universal partnership proper (societas universorum bonorum) in existence between a cohabiting couple. In a universal partnership both parties agree to put their current and future property in common, which would resemble a marriage in community of property.
Universal partnerships must satisfy four legal requirements:
- The aim of the partnership must be to make a profit
- Both parties must contribute to the enterprise
- The partnership must operate for the benefit of both parties
- The contract between the parties must be legitimate
The universal partnership argument can be used to give both parties a share in all property acquired during (and before) the commencement of the relationship. However, if a universal partnership cannot be proven, the private property owned by the cohabitees prior to cohabitation belongs to the partners separately and there is no community of property. Property acquired before the relationship is also exempt from any consequences of the Insolvency Act.
Proving the existence of a universal partnership on separation can add to the stress that already accompanies the end of a relationship. It is much more sensible for a cohabiting couple to draw up a cohabitation agreement at the outset of the living arrangement. A cohabitation agreement is a relatively simple contract that includes details of a couple’s assets, property and the financial contributions each partner makes to the joint home. It is valid when ratified by an appointed lawyer.
And that’s not all
There are many other issues cohabitative couples must contend with, should they decide to call it a day. There will be a home and associated mortgage or tenancy and decisions to be made about what happens to it, with the accompanying financial consequences. There may be children of the union. There could be shared debts. There may be insurance policies with both partner as beneficiaries, or a shared vehicle. A cohabitation agreement can help to mitigate conflict when it comes to deciding how these matters will be resolved.
If the worst happens
A will is often the last thing on the mind when a couple is caught up in the excitement of moving in together. But it’s an important consideration, particularly a few years down the line when there are children and/or shared property involved. Cohabiting partners have no automatic legal right to inherit from the other, as per the Intestate Succession Act, and no right to spousal maintenance on death, as provided for by the Maintenance of Surviving Spouses Act. If you want to be sure of looking after each other in the event of one or other’s death, it is important to make a will.
Free Cohabitation Agreement
Contact us for more information
If you are about to move in with your partner and would like to draw up a cohabitation agreement and/or a will, or if you need help with the dissolution of a cohabitative relationship, call Simon today. Cape Town Family Attorneys Simon Dippenaar and Associates Inc. are experts in family law, including cohabitation. We’ll explain your rights and responsibilities and make sure your interests are protected. Contact Simon on +27 (0) 86 099 5146 or email contact us.