Buying home with your boyfriend?

3 min read

Dear Real Estate Adviser,
I’m planning to buy property in a southern state with my boyfriend. We live in California currently. But I’m afraid that one day things won’t work out for us, just like in the movie, “The Break-Up.” Is there an agreement or contract or some sort of form we can sign in the event of complications. No lawyer, please.
— Amy True

Dear Amy,
Though it may not seem too romantic to your partner, you are wise to protect your interests. And if it takes Hollywood to put these issues on the front burner, so be it.

For the sake of our other readers, “The Break-Up” is about an unmarried couple that buys a condo in Chicago but soon splits up. Neither will move out, so both hunker down to devise ways try to drive away the other.

This kind of domestic war can be avoided, at least for the most part, with a couple of options.

First, you should understand that ownership of real property can take many forms. These vary from state to state, and not all are allowed in all states.

Some of the more common ones are:
Sole ownership. Obviously, this means ownership by a single person.
Joint tenancy. Probably the most common, this means two or more people have equal but undivided shares. This carries what’s called “right of survivorship,” which means if one owner dies, that person’s shares automatically go over to the other owner or owners.
Tenancy by the entireties. This is a variation on joint tenancy, in which the joint tenants are husband and wife, with each owning half and with neither permitted to sell the property without the agreement of the other.
Tenants in common. Two or more people can hold title in this form in specific proportions spelled out in the title. If one owner dies, that person’s share passes to the rightful heirs, not to the other owners, and those heirs become new tenants in common with the existing tenants in common.
Community property. This exists in a limited number of states as a variation on joint tenancy between husband and wife with each owning half. But in the event of death, the deceased’s share passes in a manner similar to tenants in common, i.e., with no right of survivorship.

Your first option, then, would be to consider taking title to the property as tenants in common. That way you delineate exactly what share you own in the event you split up. Obviously, however, there are other considerations that go along with this, so you should think of it as a no-brainer that you will first discuss this with an attorney in the state you’re buying the home. For example, your boyfriend could sell his share to virtually anyone.

It’s possible your attorney may also advise you on crafting a written agreement that defines financial responsibilities and how — in the event of a split — your household’s assets will be divided, among other things, such as custody of pets.

Option two, similarly, is the increasingly popular domestic-partner agreement, where you also decide in advance who gets what, including property. This can also be used to spell out debt obligations: for example, who pays what household expenses, who uses what savings and checking accounts and who pays for insurance. To keep the breakup mess to a minimum, you can also agree in this document that you will go to arbitration, in the event a post-breakup dispute should arise. Realize that some state legal systems don’t fully honor domestic partner agreements, while others honor them only in select counties.

One of these two approaches would be highly advisable for you, largely because default provisions and legal presumptions in federal and state law are still geared more toward married couples. Court cases involving domestic partners can be very convoluted and drawn out.

And yes, you can take the do-it-yourself route if you must. Make sure you research the steps and laws thoroughly. Nolo, which publishes do-it-yourself legal books, offers “Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples,” published in 2006. A Web site that explores legal options and documents for unmarried domestic partners is

I’m certainly not a relationship counselor, but for practicality’s sake, it might be better if you two rented a place for a year or so before taking the mortgage plunge, especially if you already suspect there’s a chance things won’t work out. With your move, you will each likely be separated from family and be thrust into new settings, new jobs and a new culture. That adjustment is stressful enough on a relationship without the pressure of a huge financial commitment.

I wish you two luck in your future together.

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