By on 8.9.23 in Carolina Demographics, NC in Focus

There are many reasons for choosing to live with a partner without marrying or prior to getting married, including financial reasons or to test the relationship prior to marriage. In demography, we refer to unmarried romantic partners living together using the term cohabitation.  

Fifty years ago, it was very rare to live with an unmarried partner. Only 0.1 percent of 18-24-year-olds and 0.2 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds lived with an unmarried partner in 1968, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. 

Today, those numbers are very different. Since 1990, the decennial census has included a question about cohabitation. Nationally, 6.9% of adults shared their living space with an unmarried partner, as of 2021.  

In this blog post, we examine cohabitation trends in North Carolina. We examine these trends among those ages 16 and older as 16 is the minimum legal age at which people can marry in North Carolina with parental consent (The legal age was raised to age 16 in 2021).

What percentage of adults cohabitate in North Carolina? 

As of 2021, North Carolina’s share of cohabiting adults (6.2%) across all age groups is lower than the national average (6.9%). (The number may be slightly higher, as the American Community Survey only asks one person (the ‘head of household’) about their relationship to every other person in the household.) 

 The percentage of cohabiting adults in North Carolina has increased over time. Since the 1990s, the share of currently cohabiting adults in North Carolina has more than doubled. In 1990, 2.6% of adults were cohabiting, a number that grew to 6.2% in 2021. The share of currently cohabiting adults is small, but research shows that nationally most women (ages 19 to 44 in 2017) have cohabited, and most women (ages 19 to 44) cohabited with their spouse prior to marriage. 

What does this look like broken down by age? 

Across all measured years, 25- to 34-year-olds were most likely to cohabitate, compared to other age groups. Older adults (55+) are the least likely but are experiencing the highest increase. (In other words, older adults are still the least likely to cohabitate, but that percentage is changing more than other age groups.) 

In North Carolina, where do we see cohabitation? 

In 2021, 531,180 adults (ages 16 and older) in North Carolina were in cohabiting unions. The highest shares of cohabiting adults were in Buncombe County (8.2%), Swain County (7.8%), and New Hanover County (7.5%), whereas the lowest shares of cohabiting adults were in Moore County (4.5%), Hyde County (4.5%), and Union County, Mitchell County, and Caswell County (all at 4.6%). Sixty-two counties had lower shares of cohabiting adults than the state average of 6.2%.  

Where are same-sex couples in North Carolina likely to cohabitate? 

Out of the 531,180 cohabiting adults in 2021, 5.81% (or 30,856 adults) were in same-sex cohabiting unions. Buncombe County (9.8%), Orange County (9.0%), and Durham County (8.9%) had the highest shares of same-sex cohabiting unions compared to the lowest shares in Pamlico County (1.5%), Caswell County (1.9%), and Camden County and Alleghany County (both at 2.2%).

Who among cohabiting adults in North Carolina has ever been married? 

Overall, 65% of adults who cohabited in 2021 had never been married followed by 28% who were divorced. In line with the median ages at first marriage, cohabiting adults younger than 35 had the lowest shares of adults who had ever been married. By age 55, most currently cohabiting adults had been married (were either divorced or widowed.)   

What share of cohabiting adults in North Carolina have minor children living at home?

In 2021, 34% of cohabiting adults had at least one (own) child under the age of 18 in the household. The average number of children under 18 among cohabiting adults was 1.8 children.  

Why does this matter?

In many ways, cohabitation is similar to marriage, but the union status differs from marriage particularly because there is no legal contract between partners. This means that a cohabiting couple can separate without going through any legal proceedings but also that there is no contract protecting each partner's properties nor any proceedings that would divide up the properties in the event of a separation (unless the partners have signed any contracts regarding what will happen in the event their relationship ends).

Cohabiting partners are also not entitled to benefits that spouses receive, such as more than 1,000 federal benefits and protections. For instance, cohabiting partners cannot receive retirement benefits from a deceased partner or file joint tax returns, among other benefits and rights.

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