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Cohabitation agreements can help unmarried couples split equitably

8549583_S.jpgDivorce happens every day in the United States, and it seems like celebrity divorces are even more frequent (but only because they receive media attention). With celebrity divorce comes discussion about prenuptial agreements, infidelity, child support and all matter of other issues - legal and personal.

What's rare, however, is to hear about a celebrity split with none of these factors in place. Indeed, some famous actors end long-term relationships without even getting divorced. As one example, it was recently announced that "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm is splitting from girlfriend Jennifer Westfeldt after an 18-year relationship. Although the split seems amicable, it is nonetheless an opportunity to discuss legal protections for couples who opt for cohabitation over marriage.

Many adults these days are wary of marriage because they grew up as children of divorce. Unmarried cohabitation somehow seems safer, because you're not at risk of divorce if you never got married in the first place.

But it is important to note that each state has divorce laws that provide basic protections to couples ending their relationship. In most cases, there are no automatic legal protections for unmarried couples. Without these, the practical aspects of a breakup can actually be messier than those of a divorce.

Thankfully, there are ways for couples to protect themselves outside of marriage. Drafted with the help of an attorney, a cohabitation agreement can allow couples to plan for contingencies involving the end of their relationship. Agreements can specify how property will be divided, what to do with a jointly held business, whether one partner should continue to financially support the other, and just about anything else that would normally be covered in divorce.

Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt seem to be parting on good terms. And because both have been successful in their careers, they may not need to worry too much about dividing their assets equally. But a case like this is the exception and not the rule. Couples knit their lives together, regardless of whether they have said "I do." For most couples who choose not to marry, cohabitation agreements are a smart way to avoid the pitfalls of a difficult breakup.

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