The Legal Side of Love

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What to do, know and sign before you move in together.

If you're buying, both of your names should be on the deed, no matter who makes the down payment. If one person is contributing more, make sure the percentages are in writing, and that the deed is issued as a Tenants in Common deed. If you split and sell the property, each person gets back the same percentage they put in. Be careful if your shaky credit requires him to be on the deed alone. If you pay part or all of the down payment, it will be very difficult to get it back if things go awry. Consult a lawyer to help you figure out your options.

Many couples alternate bills—he pays electric, you pay gas—and some create a joint checking that they use for shared expenses. Obviously, if he has trouble paying bills on time—whether he has money issues or just forgets—keep your name off of them them so your credit stays clean. But credit issues aside, there are certain accounts unmarried couples should always keep separate: your cell phone, credit card, savings accounts, student loans and business expenses. And think twice about car leases.

“It's impossible [to get off car leases],” said Blake, 33, who ended an engagement with her fiance. “You have to refinance, and it would have cost us $14,000 to get off each other's [car] leases. We stayed on and luckily, we're not the kind of people who who default on things. But a few months ago I paid one day after the “suggested due date” and I was freaking out—What if I get a late statement? What if he gets a late statement? I love this car, but I swear, I'm going to have a party when I turn it in, because until then—on paper—I am still bound to him. Being on a car lease is more binding than marriage.”

Sign on the dotted line

No one dreams of an anniversary filled with roses and contracts. It's not romantic, but a cohabitation agreement now prevents a Wapner-style he said/she said smackdown later. That said, this should be a joint undertaking, something the two of you hash out together. Springing legal papers on someone is jarring, and talking through these issues is a chance for both of you to express desires and concerns and even get to know each other better.

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