Love in the golden years: cohabitors need protection by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

Consider the plight of my friend, let’s call her Barbara. A widow, a vivacious, smart and active woman “of a certain age,” she found love again more than a decade ago with a widower. After a long time of dating, she moved in with him. Let’s call him X. They seemed perfect for each other, poised to live happily ever after. But, wait.

After 11 years of cohabitation, Barbara became uneasy when X would disappear for hours at a time, returning with vague explanations of where he had been. Ever the optimist, she shrugged it off, understanding the reality only after the traumatic event. As she reported it, late one night, X declared an end to their relationship and told her she had to move out. He told her he had found a replacement for her. It was his name, not Barbara’s, that was on the lease, so this precipitous eviction was perfectly legal. Never mind that it was her furniture that filled the rooms of their spacious apartment. Middle of the night? Didn’t matter. At the age of 78, after all those years together, she was cast out, carrying what she could in a single suitcase.

Fortunately, she had her adult daughter’s family to stay with in a Boston suburb. But the eviction was upending. Barbara was terrified and devastated, both emotionally and physically. This strong and resilient woman was reduced to tears on our den couch. How could he do that? After so many years, did she have no rights? The answer, sadly, is precious few. She came to learn that many other seniors, especially women, face this same terrifying predicament.

As it turns out, long-term cohabitors are not entitled by law to due process. If they want protections, they must create their own legally-binding agreements.  Unless these agreements are written and filed in court, they never go into effect.

Massachusetts has recognized such cohabitation agreements since 1998. Still, they are rarely executed, leaving seniors or other cohabitants with no due process to protect them from summary eviction. So my dear friend Barbara resolutely set about finding a solution, too late for herself but, she hopes, in time to help others similarly vulnerable.

She received robust support from Veronica Wiseman of Sharon TV, as well as from family law attorneys Harry Margolis and Dimitrius Loannidis. State Representative Ted Phillips of Sharon took up the cause and helped develop a bill, now making it way, ever so slowly, through the Great and General Court of Massachusetts. Leaders of the Mass. Landlords Association have also come on board.

The goal is simple: extend to all cohabiting individuals, including seniors, the right to due process, especially in cases of eviction. While Barbara’s focus is on seniors, she hopes judges in all cases would take into consideration how long parties have been living together, what activities they’ve shared to further a life together, their level of economic interdependence. The important thing is that this be enacted into state law so that eviction can not occur without the party on the lease or deed going through the court process.

Barbara won’t be done fighting for her cause when docket item HD4979 gets a House bill number. She fully intends to take the issue to senior housing, community centers, and local news outlets and let others know she is building a movement. What happened to her has made her a force to be reckoned with.

This modest but crucial proposal – defining cohabitors as tenants and entitled to due process protections – should be a no-brainer. But she’s up against a short legislative session, scheduled to stop July 1 because it’s an election year.

Even so, the state legislature should get on with it – and do it this spring. I urge my Massachusetts readers to contact their legislators and tell them to support this change.

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