He was 45 and she, 60. It wasn’t the 15-year age gap between the two of them that took me by surprise as much as their reason for seeking me out. Neither of them was legally separated from their respective partners. They had come to me, a lawyer, to have an agreement drawn up.
The man had been living apart from his legal wife for seven years now. He had two grown-up children pursuing their own careers. He was emotionally dissatisfied with his wife. The woman, on the other hand, had been estranged from her legal husband for four years. Her four children were all married. Her husband was an alcoholic and she was a victim of domestic violence.
Living in the same vicinity they had felt a mutual attraction and confided their feelings to each other. Now they wished to be more responsible to and for each other and that is why they came to me.
I suggested they legally divorce their partners and then proceed to live out their lives peacefully together. However, neither of them wished to divorce their legal spouses and yet they were univocal about continuing to live together. And they insisted on an agreement being drawn up. I pointed out to them that an agreement of cohabitation, under such circumstances, would have no legal sanction or significance. They still wanted it. I drew it up.
After they left, brooding upon this visit, I was reminded of lyricist Indeevar’s beautiful words from the Bollywood film Prem Geet:
“Naa umrr kee sima ho, naa janm kaa ho bandhan
Jab pyaar kare koyee, toh dekhe keval mann”
Love can happen to anyone, at any time. What was profound about my two visitors was their maturity. Throughout our interaction they had spoken with quiet assurance. There had been no histrionics. Everything had been succinct and matter-of-fact.
Couples who marry or register a civil partnership acquire certain legal rights and responsibilities regarding their relationships. If a married couple (married via a religious ceremony or a civil one) – choose to end their relationship, they need to do so formally through the divorce or dissolution process.
A cohabiting or unmarried couple can separate without having to go through any formal process, but splitting up can be more difficult for them as there is no recognised structure for sorting things out. Forming a cohabitation agreement can help set down some practical guidelines for the relationship between the partners. A wide range of matters can be included in the cohabitation agreement: financial, assigning and/or accepting responsibilities, handling and/or settlement of disputes. Such an agreement made beforehand could help sustain the relationship. And if the relationship were to terminate, the document could ease the break-up, even save extraneous costs (like legal costs).
Courts may consider the agreement of cohabitation, but it would not be legally binding. There is no certainty that it can be reinforced. For mature people, like my two visitors, the legal aspects of such an agreement are quite secondary to the satisfaction they derive from it. Their prime concerns are fairness and practicality.