Practice Area: Rights of the Unwed / Cohabitation Rights in Missouri

cohabiting couples

The number of people in romantic, committed relationships who live together without getting married has grown at an enormous rate in the past few decades. People might live together before getting married, while engaged, or with no plans to get married at any point. This raises important questions about the legal rights of cohabiting couples. What happens if they break up? Depending on the circumstances, it could be a simple split, or it could end up being a bit more complicated.

With regard to children, their rights are no different than if their parents were married and going through a divorce. Property rights, however, are a different story. Missouri law does not recognize any distinct property rights between unmarried individuals. For this reason, a document known as a “cohabitation agreement” might be necessary to protect each person’s rights. This is a smart step to take before moving in with an unmarried partner to make sure both partners are protected in the event of a breakup. An experienced family lawyer can help you understand more about the legal rights of cohabiting couples in Missouri.

What Is Cohabitation?

“Cohabitation” is a fancy way of saying that two people are in a relationship and living together while unwed. It is not, however, a legal term in Missouri. State law does not identify any specific cohabitation legal rights for couples. Rights that are available in marriages in Missouri are not available to cohabiting couples, such as the rights to:

  • File joint tax returns;
  • Divide property and debts after separation;
  • Receive spousal maintenance or alimony; or
  • Establish spousal rights of survivorship in retirement or other financial accounts.

Does Missouri Recognize Common Law Marriages?

Some states allow couples to claim the benefits of marriage without going through the formal processes established by law, a process known as “common law marriage.” Missouri is not among them. State law in Missouri specifically declares all common-law marriages to be “null and void.”

Typically, in order to enter into a common-law marriage, a couple must:

  • Agree that they want to enter into a common-law marriage;
  • Live together for a minimum period of time as spouses; and
  • Hold themselves out to the public as a married couple.

Missouri requires anyone wanting to get married to obtain a marriage license. They must then have their marriage “solemnized by a person authorized by law to solemnize marriages.” This usually means a judge or a person authorized to perform marriages in a religious tradition.

What Legal Rights of Cohabiting Couples Does Missouri Recognize?

When a couple ends their relationship after living together, there is usually some discrepancy over who leaves with what and how custody of children and pets will be handled. Generally speaking, the issues presented in divorce cases in Missouri fall into one of two broad categories:

  • Property, including division of assets and debts and payment of spousal maintenance and
  • Issues affecting minor children, including child support, custody, and parenting time.


If a couple has minor children, Missouri law treats issues like child support and child custody the same whether the couple is going through a divorce or separating after cohabitation. Parents have the same obligations regarding their children regardless of whether they have ever been married to each other or lived together with no legally binding connection. That said, they need a court order to define their specific rights and duties as parents.

A parent can bring an action in court to establish child support and custody rights independently of a divorce case, so a cohabiting couple with minor children can still take child custody and child support to court. They can create an agreed parenting plan that addresses where the child will live and go to school, how they will make decisions regarding healthcare and education, and how they will split the cost of raising the child. A court can approve their agreement and make it into an order, or it can rule on these issues if the parents cannot reach an agreement.


Missouri law has little to say about the property rights of cohabiting couples. No distinction exists between marital property and separate property because there is no marriage. Instead, there is property that might be jointly owned by both individuals or property that one individual owns that they share with the other.

In addition to not recognizing common-law marriages, Missouri also does not allow “palimony” cases. This term refers to lawsuits to obtain financial support, somewhat similar to spousal maintenance, after the end of a non-marital relationship. It could be possible for a person to recover compensation after the end of a cohabiting relationship in Missouri based on their financial contributions to the relationship or the value of their labor, such as:

  • Reimbursement for contributions to property owned by the other person that greatly increased the property’s value; or
  • Compensation for unpaid work that was performed for the other person’s direct benefit.

Cases like this are rare, however, and difficult to pursue in court. An agreement reached ahead of time is much easier to manage and enforce.

What Is a Cohabitation Agreement, and Do I Need One?

A cohabitation agreement is a contract between both people in a cohabiting couple, based specifically on their intention to live together without getting married. The agreement can cover a wide range of issues. They are commonly used to clarify issues regarding property rights and finances, both during the relationship and in the event of a breakup. Cohabitation agreements can include arrangements for child support and custody if the couple separates. They can also address issues that often arise in estate planning, such as the right to manage assets and make medical decisions for the other person if they become incapacitated.

Courts are likely to enforce the terms of a cohabitation agreement as long as they are lawful. This includes incorporating the terms of a cohabitation agreement into an order establishing child support and custody rights. Even if a couple never separates, a cohabitation agreement can help them address important issues that may arise. This makes them a good idea for many cohabiting couples.

Mark A. Wortman, a Kansas City family law attorney, focuses his practice exclusively on divorce, child custody, and other family law matters. To schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case, please contact us today online or at (816) 523-6100.

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