Cohabitation refers to people who are not married to each other living together while involved in a romantic or intimate relationship. People who are sharing the same living space as roommates are not considered to be cohabiting. The term can be applied to heterosexual couples, as well as same sex partners.
Some people choose to live together as a way to test the waters before they commit to a legal marriage. They may choose to marry at some point. The other alternative is that the couple splits up before they take the step of formalizing the relationship.
Other couples live together in a long-term arrangement without ever formalizing the relationship. In some cases, one or both of the partners wants to avoid having to go through a divorce if the relationship breaks down. For others, the desire to cohabitate without being legally married has to do with not wanting to conform to traditional values concerning romantic relationships. These individuals may feel that they don't need the government or organized religion to make their relationship a legitimate one.
The term also applies to people who live together because they are not able to legally marry. Same-sex marriage has not been legalized in all parts of the United States, for example, or in many countries around the world.
In most regions of the United States, a cohabitation arrangement is not recognized as being a common law marriage. If the couple separates, any disputes about the division of their property are considered under contract law. A person who wants to make a claim for a share of the property must prove ownership first. An order for child support is not dependent on the parents being married to each other, and this can be put in place after the split.
In Ontario, Canada, a cohabiting couple who have been together for several years or who have a child have formed a common law marriage. This arrangement gives them some of the same rights as married couples, but it is not considered the same as a legal marriage. Under provincial family law, a person leaving a common law marriage is entitled to financial support, but he or she does not have the right to a share in the property accumulated while the couple was together. To make a claim for property division, proof that the property was bought jointly must be produced.