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Cohabitation often happens gradually

When people get married and begin living together, they make a conscious decision. There is a defined day when one partner moves in or when they both move into a new house together.

Cohabitation, the process by which people live together without getting married, is not nearly as well-defined. Researchers have discovered that it is often a gradual process. The couple does not sit down and have a conversation about living together, followed by that move-in day. Instead, they just start spending more and more time together until they naturally live in the same home or apartment.

One of the big reasons that people cite is the convenience of living together. As the relationship lasts longer, it may just feel easier -- not to mention cheaper -- to share the same space. They slowly transition into it to make their lives easier.

When a relationship ends, though, this gradual process may become very important. A married couple can clearly point to the date of the marriage and note that any assets they bought together after that date are marital assets. A couple who has cohabitated may not even know when they started living together. They may disagree on the date. They may not know what they bought together and what they bought separately.

At the termination of a long-term relationship -- which may have lasted longer than the average marriage -- this can lead to serious questions about property division. Both people may think they have a right to specific assets, and it's important for them to know what legal rights they have.

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