(ARA) - It has become the new norm: Unmarried couples deciding to live together. In fact, the number of unmarried, opposite-sex couples who shared the same living quarters jumped by 13 percent, to 7.5 million, in 2010 over 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The number of same-sex couples living together is about 620,000.
More often than not, most unmarried couples who decide to live together intend to marry at some point. It's an added step in the courtship process. Living together is perceived as a way of "testing" compatibility, and as an opportunity to establish financial stability prior to getting married.
Living together doesn't always work out as planned, however. According to the Annual Review of Sociology, 55 percent of cohabitating couples get married within five years of moving in together. In that same period, 40 percent break up.
As cohabitation has become the norm, the number of legal cases involving disputes among unmarried couples who live together has risen in proportion, according to FindLaw.com, the nation's leading website for free legal information. When an unmarried couple buys large ticket items together, including homes, and supports each other financially, trouble may emerge if they experience a difficult breakup. Because there is no legal mechanism such as divorce to help unmarried couples separate their property, they may need legal help to resolve their differences.
"You may share many things, from the toothpaste to the purchase of a new flat-screen TV," says Stephanie Rahlfs, an attorney with FindLaw.com. "Keep in mind that you're still single. You're not married yet, and in case things don't work out, you should take some steps to protect your rights and your property."
The key, according to FindLaw.com, is clear communication, up front, before you rent the moving van. So before you say "I do" to living together, consider these tips:
Set the ground rules. Living together isn't like having a roommate. It's an intimate relationship that comes with many financial and social complexities. Take time to talk about how you want the relationship to work and what you will do if it doesn't. Be clear about finances, chores, and visits from friends and family members. Put all of this into writing. Family law attorneys also recommend that unmarried couples sign a cohabitation property agreement, which is similar to a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement for couples getting married.
Think about the unexpected. Cohabitating means sharing your lives, but you're still free (and single) to opt out if it doesn't work. But what happens if your girlfriend unexpectedly becomes pregnant, your boyfriend loses his job and can't afford to pay his share of the rent, or your partner is seriously injured or becomes terminally ill? These are real possibilities that should be discussed before moving in together.
Set goals. Marriage is often the biggest elephant in the room. Most couples move in together because they think they may marry the other person. Some couples agree not to move in together until they're officially engaged. Some wait until a marriage date has been set. To avoid misunderstandings, clearly set a goal about whether you will continue the relationship or end it after a certain period of time.
Keep finances separate. Keep separate checking, savings and credit card accounts. Sit down each month and do your bills together. Be clear with each other about who pays for what.
Keep major purchases separate. If you make a major purchase such as a car and are making the monthly payments, be sure to keep the vehicle's title in your name. In the event of a breakup, this will make it easier to determine who owns what property. If you make a joint purchase such as a home, consult an attorney to create an agreement stating the terms of the ownership and responsibility for payment of the mortgage.
Don't co-sign loan applications. Your boyfriend or girlfriend may ask you to co-sign an application for a credit card or an auto loan. Don't do it. That will make you liable for the debt if you split up. Only co-sign after you have been legally married.
Do not become financially dependent upon each other. Maintain your career and keep developing your job skills in the event that the living arrangement does not work out and you find yourself living on your own again. Even though you're living together, you are under no legal obligation to support your boyfriend or girlfriend.