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The difference between sambo and marriage in Sweden

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The term sambo is used to describe couples in Sweden who live together. It's a shortened form of the adjective sammanboende (where samma means 'together' and boende comes from the verb bo meaning 'to live'), and Swedish also has the term särbo to refer to couples who live apart.

Both these words typically suggest a serious and long-term relationship, although they can be used for couples who have been together for months or for decades.

Depending on the couple, a sambo relationship may be a stepping stone on the way to marriage, or a substitute: marriage rates are lower in Sweden than in many other European countries, with many couples choosing to remain sambos throughout their whole lives.

From a purely bureaucratic point of view, marriage makes a lot less difference than in many other countries. There are no tax deductions for married couples, for example, and the process for applying for a partner visa is the same whether you're married or simply cohabiting partners. In practice, life as a spouse or a sambo is much the same, but marriages are ruled by the Marriage Code (äktenskapsbalk), while sambo relationships are subject to the rules set out in the Cohabitation Act (sambolagen or Act 2003:376).

This means there are some important differences to be aware of.

A marriage is slightly more complicated to enter into than a samboskap. Marriage can be carried out in a religious ceremony or a civil one, as long as the person officiating has a marriage licence. The couple also needs to apply for a marriage certificate and to contact the Swedish Tax Agency (Skatteverket) in advance in order to get the correct documents, as they will confirm there are no reasons not to allow the marriage (such as one partner being underage or already married).

One important aspect is that gender doesn't matter, whether you're sambos or a married couple. Since 2009, same-sex couples have been able to enter into marriages and exactly the same rules apply as to different-sex couples.

Photo: Ulf Lundin/imagebank.sweden.se

When it comes to entering into a samboskap, this can happen in several different ways.

If you are moving to Sweden from another country to live with your partner (whether or not they are Swedish), you will need to register this with Skatteverket when you arrive, even if your primary reason for moving is not to live together – such as if you're moving for a job. You can do this whether or not you have already lived together.

If you are moving or hoping to move from outside the EU, it might be surprising to learn that whether you are married or not makes no difference as to eligibility for a partner visa to move to Sweden. Instead, the key criteria is whether you have previously lived together, or whether you are moving to Sweden to live together.

Couples who move in together when both partners already live in Sweden do not need to register their sambo status in any special way: it's enough to live together while in a relationship (typically for longer than six months) and to have a "joint household", which basically means sharing responsibility for the upkeep of the property and sharing some household costs.

But a sambo has different rights compared to an inneboende (a non-romantic cohabitant, or flatmate/housemate), and legally this status is somewhere in between an ordinary flatmate and a spouse.

There are some rights reserved only for married couples and not sambos, and most of these apply after either the breakup of the partnership (whether through divorce or separation) or the death of one partner.


Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

When a married couple goes through divorce, they must wait during a six-month cooling-off period if one or both partners has children or if one does not want to apply for divorce.

Then, shared property is divided equally, which includes a wide range of things from property to cars to bank accounts, if bought for both partners to share. This is the case no matter how much each partner paid towards the property or what proportion each partner owns. If one partner will keep the property, they must then pay the other partner 50 percent of the market value (not the original price).

For sambos, 'shared property' is also divided 50:50 if the relationship breaks up, but this only usually includes the home and household goods, if they were bought for shared use, and not to things like cars, summer houses, or bank accounts.

This means it doesn't apply if one partner moved into a property already owned by the other, and what's more, many sambos choose to draw up a Cohabitation Agreement (samboavtal) if there are certain items you want to specifically include or exclude from the list of joint property. For example, if one person paid a greater share of the property price and wants to remain entitled to keep that, it might make sense to enter into an official agreement.

This agreement doesn't need to be witnessed or registered, but it can be a good idea to prevent any disputes in the future. Note that any agreement becomes invalid if you later marry; then, the Marriage Code applies.

Under the Inheritance Code, spouses and cohabitants/sambos have different rights if their partner dies. For this reason, sambos may wish to draw up a will stipulating what they would want their partner to inherit. One famous example of why this can be important is the conflict between author Stieg Larsson's partner, Eva Gabrielsson, and Larsson's family, who automatically inherited his estate after his death. This prompted a lengthy legal dispute over these assets and particularly the copyrights to his books.

The other time there's a difference between sambos and married couples is if a couple has children. A mother is automatically given custody of her child at birth, and in married couples this applies to the father too. If a sambo couple have a child together and want to share custody, the father must legally acknowledge his paternity and the couple must apply for shared custody.

The decision whether to get married or remain as sambos is an individual choice for each couple to make, so the crucial thing is that both partners are aware of what their rights are in each scenario and take any necessary steps (such as a joint will or cohabitation agreement) to protect their future.