Dear Real Estate Adviser,
My boyfriend and I are thinking about buying a house together. What would be your advice to protect myself in case the relationship breaks?
Good question! A growing number of unhitched couples who want to share homeownership are wrestling with this very issue. A 2011 survey of divorce attorneys in the 1,600-member American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers shows that 48 percent have seen a rise in the number of unmarried couples over the past five years who go to court to divide assets and obligations. Not that this would happen to you, of course, but you're right to be prudent.
Many in this growing partnership segment are choosing to sign cohabitation agreements, also called domestic partner agreements. These are legally binding documents that cover everything from mortgage debts, property taxes, maintenance and other house-expense obligations to who pays for existing credit card debt and insurance coverage, who makes medical decisions and who, in the event of a split, gets which bills, the IRA, furnishings, pets, flat-screen TVs, desktop computers and so on.
A tenancy-in-common, or TIC agreement, is another option. It is not appreciably different than a cohabitation agreement. TICs define what percentage of the home each partner owns, clarifies their financial obligations and spells out the buying and selling restrictions and duties for each party in the event of a split-up.
States have slightly varying laws on how these are honored, in part because legal presumptions in state and federal law are still skewed to married couples. But for the most part, such agreements are treated as binding contracts in court; the more specific, the better. Such singles' "prenups," though certainly not romantic, are viewed increasingly as sensible acts of partnership.
I suggest you seek a family law attorney experienced in nonmarital cohabitation agreements in your area to determine which approach works best for you and to assist with your agreement. If you want to try the do-it-yourself route, Nolo publishes the "Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples," which contains the requisite filing forms.
So Natasha, unless you are buying a house with Boris Badenov (obscure reference to a shady "Rocky & Bullwinkle" cartoon character), there is no reason you can't forge ahead.
Good luck in your life together!
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