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Since I know that my grandmother has only recently figured out how to use the internet, I know that she’s not likely to read this, so I’ll confess. For almost a year before we were married, my husband of seven years and I (dramatic pause) lived in sin, shacked up, cohabited, whatever you want to call it. We hadn’t quite planned to cohabitate, but the timing between his return from a deployment and the end of my college apartment lease coincided tidily with his intent to use his VA loan to purchase his first home and my need to relocate my college apartment furniture.
Though my grandmother would be a little bit scandalized, we’re not alone in this post-college, pre-marriage living situation. It’s common, right? Even among military members. (Well, for those who aren’t required to live in the barracks.) Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, whether the news incites a jaw-drop or you’re currently cohabitating with your romantic interest, there are a few things to be aware of, both good and bad.
Let’s look at some of the implications of military cohabitation, and what it may mean for you as either a renter or a landlord renting to unmarried military couples.
How Common Is Cohabitating?
In the 1970s, the U.S. Census reported that around a half-million U.S. households were cohabitating. That number soared to over 1.5 million couples within a decade. Another decade on, and almost 3 million couples cohabited. That number rose yet again. Over 4 million households cohabited by the late 1990s.
Today, 48% of all women aged 15-44 years old cohabit, which is up from just 34% of women in 1995, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, a part of the Centers for Disease Control. That doesn’t mean everyone is cohabiting, but the number is rising substantially enough to suggest that the nuclear family may be shifting.
This leads us to the question, has living together surpassed the boundaries of tradition and become more common than marriage?
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Numerous studies, research, and data point toward yes. According to recent studies, for those aged 18-24, cohabitation is now more prevalent than living with a spouse.
“The share of U.S. adults who are currently married has declined modestly in recent decades, from 58% in 1995 to 53% today. Over the same period, the share of adults who are living with an unmarried partner has risen from 3% to 7%.” — Pew Research Center
In 2021, when we began recovering from an economically draining pandemic, cohabitation continued to rise in popularity. But the statistics aren’t surprising, are they? 59% of the people you know age 18 to 44 have cohabitated, surpassing the 50% of people who have ever been married —a statistic that continues to drop. So how common is cohabitating? Common!
Pair its commonality with the wide acceptance of this living arrangement (59% of people say that it’s okay even if the couple never plan to marry), and we can expect this trend to continue to rise.
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Potential Pitfalls of Cohabitation for Military Members
While generally entered into for convenience, a fear of commitment, an intent to "test drive" a marriage, or a shunning of traditional models of living, cohabitation doesn’t come without a few problems, especially for those in the military.
For those who choose to cohabit, there are a few things to consider:
- Complacency. “...while cohabiting relationships are still relatively short-lived, couples today are cohabiting longer—increasing from about 12 months in the 1983-1988 cohabitation cohort to 18 months in the later cohort—and that this longer duration is linked to couples delaying or forgoing marriage altogether...among the early cohort, 23% of women were still cohabiting five years later, and 42% had married their partner. These shares were reversed among the later cohort—43% were still cohabiting and only 22% had married.” — PRB
- It doesn’t change the trauma of separation. Though marriage is legal and has legal consequences upon divorce, ending a cohabiting relationship feels more like a divorce than an old-school breakup. There’s the issue of housing. Who leaves vs. who stays? Can either one of you afford the place on your own? Or, do you both remain in the home/apartment while navigating your breakup? There’s no easy way to end a cohabiting relationship. This confusion and fear of ending what's become a new normal can lead to complacency, causing the relationship to continue on the way things are (unhappily) or default into a marriage.
- Relocation. If we’re talking about a cohabiting relationship in the military, then there’s a whole other level of risk involved. PCS orders come frequently, and while there’s no reason why servicemembers shouldn't be able to partake in serious relationships, breakups amid military life can feel monumental.
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What Cohabitation Looks Like for Military Members
There isn’t much incentive for service members to cohabit; in fact, BAH rates increase with marriage, the spouse receives medical care and is listed on orders making PCS moves easier. So while a few perks shouldn’t incentivize marriage, it definitely doesn’t de-incentivize it. If the significant other is shying from marriage, there are two major problems to consider:
- Increased dependency. This “problem” seems counter-intuitive, right? The whole point of cohabitating is to bring your lives closer. But here’s why this stepping stone to marriage might backfire when it comes to military life. When you marry a service member, you technically become a "dependent" (though I have yet to encounter a military spouse that I would define as dependent on anyone!). However, when you’re not married to the service member, you are dependent on them for access to services that play a major role in his or her life. You can’t access the commissary, the Exchange, or social events on base without being escorted.
- Financial considerations. The financial aspect of cohabitation extends beyond simply considering how to split the bills without joint accounts. For starters, an unmarried couple cannot live on a base outside of certain extenuating circumstances that would have the non-service member defined as a caregiver for the service member’s children. As a result, unmarried military couples typically live off-base. As adults, most often, both individuals are listed on any rental lease. This brings us to the military clause.
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The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and Military Clause
In Everything Renters and Landlords Should Know About the SCRA and the Military Clause, we find out what the SCRA and military clause and how it affects servicemembers.
“The SCRA is a federal law enacted to provide active-duty servicemembers legal protections. As it pertains to housing contracts, a clause in the SCRA guarantees military members, including certain groups of activated National Guard and Reserve components, the right to terminate a lease if a set of conditions are met.”
The SCRA allows early termination if:
- The member entered into military service during the lease.
- The member started a lease during military service and received orders to deploy for at least 90 days.
- The member received a Permanent Change of Station orders.
- The tenant provides written notice of intention to move.
- The tenant delivers the landlord a copy of official military orders.
- The tenant satisfies rent payments for both the month notice is given and for the following month.
While these liberties extend to the servicemember, they do not to the significant other, who is still financially obligated to the lease.
That is to say that if two people are cohabiting and one is active duty military and receives orders to PCS, while they can lawfully break the lease, the significant other cannot. They can’t leave to follow their marine, soldier, airman, etc. The only way that the significant other can escape the financial obligations of the lease is by meeting one of the following conditions:
- They’re a "dependent" in that the servicemember provided more than one-half of the support during the 180 days preceding an application for relief under the Act. If the significant other earns his or her own income, then it is unlikely that they will meet this definition.
- The landlord takes pity on the couple and releases both from the financial obligation so that the significant other can do what many spouses do in such a situation—go home for the duration of deployment or PCS with their partner.
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Can Cohabitation Work for Military Couples?
Though it may sound cynical, the smart approach to cohabitation is to approach the situation as if you were to live with your partner as a roommate. That means delineating how bills and responsibilities are split from the onset of moving in together. In essence, you establish the cohabitation set-up as if you were planning to separate one day.
A tip to help make it work? Try drafting a written contract for cohabitation (a cohabitation property agreement) that firmly establishes the obligations and responsibilities of both parties. If you find yourself in this situation, consider talking to JAG about a "living together contract."
Especially if you own property within your relationship, here are a few things to include:
- How ownership is listed on the deed.
- How much of the home each party owns, and whether or not this measurement is fluid due to improvements, etc.
- Buyout rights and how the house will be appraised.
- What happens to the property if you break up.
Little known fact:
“The law in most states says that if someone has been living with you for a certain number of months, he or she has a legal right to live there (even if the person isn't on the lease or deed). You have to go through a formal eviction to remove the person from the premises. You will have to go to your local courthouse to file a "Complaint for Eviction" or something similar.” — Cohabitation Property Rights for Unmarried Couples
Planning to separate while anticipating living together sounds counter-intuitive. In marriage, however, an obligation to each other (financial or otherwise) is understood. But cohabiting only creates the illusion of a commitment. There are no legal ties between the two people.
Before you jump into what appears to be an exciting new chapter in your relationship, be sure to consider all the logistical and legal aspects of what can sometimes be an emotional decision.
Learn more about finding a home or rental:
By Danielle Keech with Karina Gafford
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