Is cohabitation a good alternative to marriage?

Last updated on: 22/03/2017

You may be considering a long term relationship as an alternative to marriage. However, in the Singaporean context, is it a good alternative to marriage?

In many Western societies today, parties may opt to remain in a long term relationship instead of marriage. Famous examples of couples in a long term relationship have long captivated the attention of the media, and examples include the relationship between film-maker Tim Burton and the actress Helena Bonham Carter, who famously lived in 2 adjacent town-houses as an extension of a relationship where parties could maintain some form of independence from each other.

Some couples opt for cohabitation because they do not wish to encounter the legal consequences of a divorce, while others feel that a long term relationship is as good as a marriage. There are many beliefs which discourage such couples from marriage, for example the belief that “Marriage is the graveyard of love”.

From a legal perspective, there may be some perceived disadvantages when marriage is compared with co-habitation. In Singapore, one cannot obtain a divorce within the first 3 years of marriage. From a husband’s perspective, he would generally be responsible for paying his wife maintenance after a divorce. There would also be other financial implications such as maintenance payable for the children, and a split in the matrimonial assets. As such, the financial impact of a divorce may deter some from entering into a marriage and they may consider cohabitation as an alternative.

Another factor which may lead parties to consider cohabitation is the fact that pre-nuptial agreements are not legally binding in Singapore. While the Courts take into account a pre-nuptial agreement when making a decision on the division of matrimonial assets in a divorce, it is not a legally enforceable agreement. Therefore, if you are a person with substantial means and you are concerned with ensuring that your assets are protected post-divorce, a pre-nuptial agreement may sometimes be insufficient as a means of protecting your assets. As such, you may consider a long-term relationship or cohabitation instead.

For many young couples in Singapore, marriage is a much better option to cohabitation as this is the only means by which they can take their first step up the property ladder i.e. apply for an HDB flat. However, in other countries such as France where marriage has been viewed by many as being “bourgeois” or middle-class, many couples opt to enter into a civil union instead. Such a civil union has legal effect but it may be dissolved with a registered letter.

It is unlikely that civil unions will be adopted in Singapore in the near future.

The fear of divorce should not be a reason why marriage is shunned. Some marriages are not meant to last forever, and for some there is still a reason to be thankful when a marriage ends in divorce. In the words of the actress Helena Bonham Carter, "And really, the mark of a successful relationship shouldn't be whether you're there forever after. Sometimes you're not meant to be forever together. Sometimes you have to come to terms with the fact that was it. But that was a gift, a massive gift."