My boyfriend of two and a half years recently bought a home. His mom provided half of the down payment and co-signed on the mortgage. After six months of renovations, the house is finally ready, and we’re moving in together. We’ve decided that I will pay a conservative amount in “rent” plus 50 percent of the utilities. Additionally, my boyfriend has asked that I sign a cohabitation agreement. I recently read the document, which was drafted by his lawyer, and found it appalling. It extends far beyond cohabitation and includes elements of a prenuptial agreement. The most alarming component states that, in the case of divorce, I would not be covered by spousal support law, nor would I be entitled to any financial compensation, regardless of how much I had contributed to the mortgage over the course of our marriage.
As it stands, I have no intention of signing this agreement. My boyfriend says he is okay with that before we move in, but he’s adamant that it needs to be signed if we are ever to get married. What should I do? And is it common practice for cohabitation agreements to stipulate that, in the case of divorce, I would be left with nothing?
You’re correct that cohabitation agreements are not common practice, but that doesn’t mean they’re a completely bad idea. I personally wish more people would consider them. Many couples move in together and eventually slide into marriage without ever drawing clear, intentional lines around what’s “mine,” what’s “yours,” and what’s “ours,” partly out of naïveté and optimism (“What’s mine is yours!”) but mostly because it’s an uncomfortable topic everyone would rather ignore. It’s even more awkward when there’s a lopsided financial equation (say, you’re moving into a house one person owns with their mom). While I think your boyfriend went about this process all wrong, I actually do agree with his intentions — he’s trying to express boundaries that seem important to him. But at the same time, I understand your anxiety here. From a communication perspective, your boyfriend really stepped in it, and I’d be upset too.
You’re right to refuse to sign the document he gave you, which sounds like more of a demand than an agreement. For starters, hire your own lawyer before you touch anything binding. But first, you both need to back up.
It sounds like your boyfriend gave you what’s informally known as a “boilerplate prenup,” which basically states that, if you divorce, you owe each other nothing — you each walk away with whatever you brought into the relationship. These types of prenups are usually suggested by whoever stands to lose more in a divorce, and they can be a real slap in the face to the other person. If I had to guess, your boyfriend did this under the advice of a lawyer who’s being paid to look out for his best interests. Understandably, you don’t want to sign something that could leave you in the lurch — which, sadly, happens to women all too often — but you also don’t want to seem like you’re trying to fleece your boyfriend, either. Instead, this moment should be the beginning of a conversation about what’s best for both of you as well as your relationship.
Before that conversation starts, do some thinking: What do you think is fair? I’d point out that, from a financial standpoint, it seems you’re about to get a great deal. Let’s assume the modest “rent” you’ll pay when you move in with your boyfriend will allow you to save a couple hundred dollars a month, at least, compared with whatever your housing costs now. Invest that savings in the market (you can find a diversified index fund easily on Ellevest or Vanguard) and there’s a decent chance it’ll grow just as fast as the value of your boyfriend’s home, if not faster. Sure, a stock portfolio is not the same as home equity, but you’ll feel like you’re building something of your own. Also, not having equity in the house means your name isn’t on the mortgage — so you aren’t saddled with all that liability (and debt). Unless I’m missing something, you’re hardly getting screwed here.
However, if you do get married, I can understand that you’d like to eventually share ownership of the home where you’re going to live together. And that’s the beauty of legal documents — you can tailor them however you want. For example, you could gradually shift specific percentages of the house’s equity into your name each year of your marriage. Alternatively, a lot of prenups have what’s known as a “sunset clause,” which means that once you’re married for a specific amount of time, the prenup expires (so you would then be covered by normal spousal-support laws). In other words, marital law is whatever you make of it.
Of course, negotiating any legal paperwork will require you to have legal representation, which leaves you with a choice between two scenarios: In scenario A, you get your own lawyer now, have her strip the prenup content from the cohabitation agreement before you sign it and move in, and then work with her again when (or if) you decide to sign a prenup before getting married. In scenario B, you don’t sign anything before you move in (which you said your boyfriend was okay with) and then take some time to get on the same page with him about your finances. Then you can hire a lawyer if (and/or when) you’re ready to get married and want to move forward with a prenup.
Your decision should ultimately depend on what kinds of conversations you’re ready to have with your boyfriend. To untangle that step, I called Debra Roberts, a therapist, the author of The Relationship Protocol, and an expert in messy communication processes. “Start off by giving him the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “Explain that the messaging of the document came off very strong, and ask him, ‘Are these demands coming from you, my boyfriend? Or are they coming from your lawyer? Are you willing to change some of these demands?’ Trust that he has good intentions, but let him know that you are concerned.” It’s key that you aren’t accusatory — begin from the assumption that he’s on your team.
This may sound obvious, but if you’re genuine about empathizing with him, he’ll be much more likely to return the favor. “The idea is that you’re holding each other in a place of mutual respect and appreciation,” explains Roberts. “You want to convey, ‘I’m with you. I want this to work. But can you understand that this thing about our home makes me uncomfortable? Are you willing to talk about this?’”
Roberts also points out that there’s a lot you’re doing right. You’ve agreed on how to split some expenses when you move in, and you seem excited about the prospect of sharing a home. “It’s important to point out what’s going well,” she says. “Sure, there are some things you need to work on, but you’ve clearly been able to communicate about finances to a certain degree in the past — remind yourselves of that.”
Of course, if it turns out that all of this is a sign that your boyfriend is a distrusting, selfish person, then hey, it’s better you find out before your relationship progresses. This certainly won’t be the last conflict you have about money and what you will and won’t share. But with time and practice, you’ll get better at these conversations. The point is to wind up in a place where you both feel secure, legally and emotionally.