What does it mean to be a 'sambo' in Sweden?

8:37 min

Lots of people in Sweden choose to live together as couples without getting married. About 1.8 million Swedes are in these kinds of relationships, but there is confusion about the laws that affect them. 

Susanne Edebäck, legal counsel and manager at Familjens jurist, explains that the Swedish term "sambo" means a person who lives with their romantic partner, without being married. It's basically the Swedish equivalent of a common law marriage. 

"You just move in together, so it's really easy to be a sambo, and sometimes maybe too easy, because many young couples don't think of what it really means legally for them," Edebäck tells Radio Sweden.

According to the Cohabitation Act, couples who simply live together don't have the same rights and obligations as married couples. 

This can create complications, especially when it comes to property and inheritance. Edebäck says one important thing to remember is that unlike married couples, sambo couples don't inherit from each other.

Edebäck has seen lots of examples in her practice where this goes wrong. For example, she explains that if an unmarried couple has a child, and one partner dies, the child would be the one to inherit the condo or apartment, which could force the surviving partner to buy out the child in order for them both to be able to stay in their home. 

She recommends a joint will to cover a lot of the bases, but she cautions that "it's not the same waterproof thing as getting married".

There are some other tricky things, too, about living together without being married. For example, if you break up, you might also be obliged to divide your house or apartment, even if you paid for it yourself.

"If I buy a condo or an apartment with my money, and my girlfriend or boyfriend moves in with me - if I buy it at the exact time that we're moving in together, the whole apartment or condo would be in our division of property, even though I paid for it. That's another example that you really need to look at your life situation and think about what do we want if we were to separate, or if one of us were to die," says Edebäck.

With a sambo agreement, you can declare what property you want to be considered as your own in the event of a separation, and Edebäck advises getting the help of legal counsel, to make sure that the agreement you sign is binding.

She believes it might be time for legislators to review the cohabitation law from 2003. She has lots of suggestions that she feels could improve the law, like making it so that sambo couples inherit each other's property, especially if they have children. And that all property that the couple acquires together should be seen as joint, not just their joint house and furniture. Maybe there should even be a statement that couples make when they move in together, simply to show they understand the law, says Edebäck.

Edebäck is not the only expert who feels it's time to change the law. Kajsa Walleng, a lawyer who did her PhD on this topic, had similar suggestions for Swedish Radio News. But even if the cohabitation law were to change, Edebäck still likes the idea that being an unmarried couple means having weaker rights and obligations, so people can choose what kind of partnership to be in.

Edebäck also says that regardless of your marital status, you can't inherit someone else's debt or mortgage in Sweden, but if you inherit things that aren't fully paid off, you have to make sure that all the debts on them are paid before you can keep what's left.