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‘Vat en sit’: cohabitation and legal rights (ukuhlalisana namalungelo asemthethweni)


This article provides an overview of the legal rights of “vat en sit” or cohabitation. Cohabitation, where two individuals live together but are not married, is becoming increasingly popular in South Africa. Our law does not give parties to a cohabitation arrangement automatic legal rights and if one party wishes to claim from the other, they would need to prove that the cohabitation amounts to a universal partnership. A universal partnership requires an express or, more often than not, a tacit agreement between two unmarried parties who live together for an extended period of time and can be formalised by a cohabitation or domestic partnership agreement.

Eli nqaku lishwankathela amalungelo asemthethweni “e-Vat en sit” okanye ukuhlalisana. Ukuhlalisana, apho abantu ababini behlala kunye kodwa bengatshatanga, kuya kuxhaphaka eMzantsi Afrika. Umthetho wethu awubaniki abo bahlalisanayo ilungelo elisemthethweni elizenzekelayo kwaye ukuba omnye wabo ufuna ukwenza ibango komnye, kuya kufuneka angqine ukuba ukuhlalisana oko kuyafana nobuqabane jikelele. Ubuqabane jikelele kufuneka ibe bobuvakalisiweyo okanye ubukhulu becala, ibe sisivumelwano esingathethwanga phakathi kwabantu ababini abangatshatanga abahlala kunye kangangethuba elide yaye sinokwenziwa samkeleke ngesivumelwano sokuhlalisana okanye isivumelwano sokuhlalisana kwabasini sinye.


Cohabitation before marriage – or in place of marriage – has increasingly become a convenient arrangement for unmarried couples to share the costs of living while, for others, it’s the perfect way to test a relationship before making a big commitment. A direct translation of the colloquial Afrikaans term “vat en sit” is “take and sit down”, meaning to take a partner and settle down together without the formalities that come with marriage. With the financial costs of weddings today, many young couples live together before or after their engagement, or before or after lobola has been paid, or before the couple’s union has been sealed in matrimony. There are, however, real financial risks with “vat en sit”, given that cohabitation is not legally recognised as a form of marriage. For example, for many couples where lobola has been paid, there is a common misconception that the payment of lobola equates to the formalisation or legalisation of the marriage. This can lead to a considerable difference in the way assets are dealt with in the event of a death or divorce, given that couples in domestic partnerships are not afforded the same legal rights, duties and protection of an agreement in law, should they wish to separate.

If you are in a cohabitation relationship, there is a risk that your partner can evict you from their house, you cannot easily claim spousal maintenance from them and when they die, you can’t easily inherit their assets unless they left a will and nominated you as a beneficiary. The deceased’s family may also, for example, have a right to evict you from the house in which you’ve been living with your partner. It is therefore important to understand the legal rights as they relate to cohabitation versus a universal partnership.


  • Vat en Sit: A direct translation of the colloquial Afrikaans term “take and sit down”, meaning to take a partner and settle down together without the formalities that come with marriage.
  • Cohabitation: Where two individuals live together but are not married.
  • Universal partnership: Instances where there is an express or, more often than not, a tacit agreement between two unmarried parties who live together for an extended period of time. Usually, these parties share similar responsibilities, duties and obligations as married couples, which often includes income, expenses and assets.


The court in Pezzuto v Dreyer and Others 1992 (3) SA 379 (A) set out four factors required for the existence of a universal partnership, namely that:

  1. each partner should contribute to the partnership, including labour, skill or monetary contribution;
  2. the partnership is carried out for the joint benefit of the parties;
  3. the object of the partnership is profit; and
  4. the agreement is valid.


‘Vat en sit’ including payment of lobola does not equal marriage

With customary marriages, a high number of people are still under the impression that payment of lobola alone will lead to a legally recognised customary marriage. This is not so and, sadly, if there is no handing over, the customary marriage will be declared to be a cohabitation relationship and not legally protected. When a man has paid lobola the family of the woman has to formally hand over their daughter to his family. This is a process that can involve ukhuvuma abakhwenyana or ho hlabisa mahadi (to welcome the groom to the bride’s family) and if it is not done, in the eyes of the law, the process to enter into a customary marriage has not been finalised and the marriage will not be legally protected under the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act. Many couples who are living together like ‘husband and wife’ and share financial and family obligations and responsibilities –accumulating assets, such as houses, cars and pensions together – think they are regarded as married. However, in the eyes of the law, they are not married, but rather in a universal partnership.

At the heart of a universal partnership, is the agreement between the parties (tacit or otherwise) that they agree to put all their assets in a communal pot and that, should the partnership later dissolve, that the assets should be distributed between the parties in accordance with the agreement between them. This does not necessarily mean that you keep what you each brought into the relationship, and there exists the potential for your partner to share in assets that you have accumulated. Accordingly, if you are in a long-term relationship and have chosen not to enter into a civil marriage or formally regulate your relationship, it may be prudent to consider entering into a cohabitation agreement to control what will happen to your respective assets in the event that you and your partner decide to part ways.

A cohabitation agreement regulates the financial aspects as well as the well-being of the child or children born of the relationship between the parties, etc. So, it’s not a marriage contract entered into when parties get married, but it carries similar legal protections to a marriage contract. The benefit of a cohabitation agreement is that it can be ended, and the relationship can be ended, without getting the courts involved. If no cohabitation agreement exists, partners would only be entitled to the assets that are owned in their own name, and the portion of the property that they invested in if it can be proven that they contributed toward that asset.

Whereas if you get married, it is a valid and binding contract that you enter into. Only a competent court, which is a regional court in South Africa, or a high court, can dissolve a marriage contract. In other words, only they can issue you with the decree of divorce, which ends the marriage. Whereas with the cohabitation agreement for unmarried partners, the parties – should they separate – this separation will be governed by that agreement. And it’s not necessary to obtain a court order in order to give effect to the agreement.

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