Join the mailing list

Why So Many Couples Over 50 Are Cohabiting

Why So Many Couples Over 50 Are Cohabiting

For couples like us, living together is more desirable than marrying.

File 4543John and I met twenty years ago through a personals ad at least a decade before the virtual avalanche of online dating sites. I was Jewish and had never been married or even engaged. John was Catholic, divorced, and the father of three grown children. I was a writer and had just published a book about women who married for the first time after 40—the result of a highly publicized cover story I had written for New York magazine. In the course of my research I had obviously worked through whatever blocks I’d experienced and was finally open to a serious relationship. 

John was a news correspondent with ABC radio. I lived in Manhattan. He lived in Westchester. He was tall and dark-haired. I was 5’5” and blonde. He was born in Minnesota. I was born in Western New York. He had a constantly changing work schedule; I created my own schedule, and we managed to date regularly from the very beginning, spending holidays together and taking one long trip each year. I met his children and traveled out West to meet his three older brothers. He traveled to Rochester to meet my family. My brother gave him a stamp of approval and invited him to sail with him; my sister confided right away, “He’s a keeper.” 

And so he was. Eight years after we met, John retired and we decided to live together. Since my apartment was larger than his he moved in with me and rented his apartment for two years, just in case ....  It took me a while to adjust, since I had lived alone for 30 years; John adapted right away. Now I'm lonely when he's not around. I figured marriage was the next step, but one of us always got cold feet. It was so comfortable this way, why rock the boat? It is also economical and we have a sense of freedom: we share expenses, chores, and cooking. But we can each spend our money—and large chunks of our time—as we wish. (Of course this is also true for many married couples.) Two years ago he surprised me with a white gold commitment ring from Tiffany’s and a bouquet of red roses. And that clinched the deal. We were unofficially a couple with a ring to prove our mutual loyalty.

Lots of Company

According to a recent study, we have lots of company. About 2.75 million men and women over the age of 50 were cohabiting in the United States in 2010—a 50 percent increase from 2000, when only 1.2 million adults were cohabiting, according to a recent study by Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. In her research Brown also discovered that older people who cohabit have more stable and long-term relationships than younger people, who often live together to test out a relationship or as a prelude to marriage. (They also divorce more frequently than contemporaries who marry without first cohabiting.) 

For many couples over fifty who cohabit, the main reasons are financial: Widows under sixty who remarry have to give up their survival benefits (they may keep them if they are over sixty), but there's no penalty if they cohabit. If both partners are working, filing separate income tax forms is often more advantageous than filing jointly. Cohabiters have certain other advantages; neither is responsible for the medical debts or expenses of a domestic partner. It’s easier to protect individual assets: His or her children have no legal access to your money, which may be reserved for your children from a prior marriage, and your children have no legal access to his or her assets. (Each of you can, of course, provide for your partner’s children in your will.) It’s typically less complicated and less expensive to dissolve a non-legal union. (And difficult to sue or be sued by a non-married partner.) Also, cohabiters may register as domestic partners in states like New York; this allows you to visit your partner if he or she is in the intensive care unit of a hospital; it may allow you to be covered by the health insurance policy of a your partner's company (this varies from company to company), and it will typically allow you to live in co-ops that do not allow unmarried couples to share apartments. (Believe it or not, this antiquated rule still exists in some buildings.) 

Of course, there is also a downside to cohabitation. If couples separate and there’s no legal partnership and no joint ownership of a house, co-op or condo, the non-owner cannot easily get rights to the home. If you have been in a long-term partnership, you cannot easily sue your ex-partner for alimony, even if you have  raised your partner's children and contributed significantly to your partner's financial success. Nor can you easily claim compensation if you find out that your partner has been unfaithful. You would also have a tough time contesting a will if your partner has not legally assigned assets to your and your children. The reverse is also true: your partner has no rights to your home if he or she  is not on the lease, nor can your partner's children easily challenge a will.