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The difference between sambo and marriage in Sweden

In Sweden, there are several different classifications of relationships, which each give the partners a different legal status and rights. Here's what you need to know about what it means to be a sambo in Sweden.

The difference between sambo and marriage in Sweden
Being sambos might be the first step on the road to marriage, or it might be an alternative. Photo: Miriam Preis/

The term sambo is used to describe couples in Sweden who live together. It’s a shortened form of the adjective sammanboende (where samman 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.

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.

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 couple must report this to the authorities to confirm that the father is indeed the father.

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.

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Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Are you raising children in Sweden? Here are a few very personal tips for what not to do from Alex Rodallec, who was raised in Sweden by a French Breton mother.

Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Raising children is hard enough as it is without having to do it in another country. The added difficulties of being a foreigner can be taxing: grappling with the language, the cultural differences, not being well acquainted with how the system works.

So how do you get advice from someone who knows a bit about the issues your child might face growing up as the child of an immigrant in Sweden? One way is to ask someone who was raised by an immigrant parent in Sweden.  Someone like me.

I am no expert in child rearing, and have no children of my own. I can, however, tell you a few things that you should try to avoid. Here are a few of my best tips for what not to do.

Do not reject your adopted country’s culture

This does not mean that you should assimilate completely. It is, however, a good idea to try to embrace your adopted country’s culture as a positive, rather than a negative, for the sake of your children.

Why? Because your children will not have your cultural identity, at least not entirely. And this will be true no matter what you do to prevent it. They will in part become Swedish, imbued with many of the values and customs of Swedish society, with the behaviour and norms.

This might not sound so serious, but if you are someone who is resentful of Sweden, or if you ever become resentful of it, it might become a serious problem.

My mother, who was French, first came to Sweden as a tourist and then later to work, but with no plans of staying. Then she met my father, a Bolivian man, whom she would eventually divorce when I was around two years old. After that my mother went to live in France with my big sister and me, and with the intention of staying.

The next part I am not so sure about, but I believe my father might have threatened legal action if she did not return with us to Sweden. Whatever the reason for her involuntary return, I do know that my mother’s dislike of Sweden grew with her resentment of having to stay there. And sad as that may be, because of our Swedishness she eventually began seeing us children – though only intermittently – as physical manifestations of the country she hated. Or perhaps we were a constant reminder of the fact that she could not leave. Why could she not leave? Because she loved us. How complicated the twists and turns of life sometimes play out.

Growing up, my mother would often tell us that it was our fault that she was “stuck in this country”, and her most common use of the word ‘Swedish’ was as a profanity directed at us, her children. Naturally this created a dissociation with Sweden and Swedishness, primarily in myself and my big sister, and to a lesser degree in my little sister.

And even though my mother had put my big sister and I in private schools with other children of immigrants (The Catholic and English Schools in Gothenburg), coupled with the fact that we went to preschool in France, we had still committed the cardinal sin of absorbing ‘Swedishness’. My little sister had it the worst when it came to this. She went to a Swedish public school, and never had the experience of going to preschool in France, and so was the most ‘Swedish’ of us all.

To this day, the subject of Swedishness and the like or dislike of Sweden is still a topic of conversation whenever I talk to or meet my sisters. My little sister has accepted her Swedishness, and lives in Gothenburg where we grew up. But my big sister and I both live abroad, and to varying degrees have issues with the country we grew up in. I am slowly learning to love and accept my Swedishness while living in France, but my big sister lives in London and baulks at the thought of ever moving back to Sweden. We are a separated family, in part due to our varying degrees of acceptance of Swedishness.

Perhaps I should stress that my mother was not a horrible person, but she suffered greatly from the circumstances of her life.

So, do not fill your children with your resentment of the country they will grow up in, it may very well be detrimental to their well being and their integration into the society they grew up in.

Do not ignore the complexity of cultural identity

Even though cultural identity can become symbolic of underlying issues, as was the case with my mother, it can also be a great resource, albeit one that might need some help along the way.

Being half French, half Bolivian, born and raised in a Swedish multiethnic suburb, had me untangling the threads that make up my cultural identity for decades. An experience common among multi-ethnic children. Your children might eventually need your support in this, I know I could have used some help.

My advice is to promote the idea that one can be many things all at once. And that to a certain degree these things are contextual. I myself am Bolivian to a greater degree when I spend time with the Bolivian side of the family, and more French when I spend time with the French side.

Having multiple cultural backgrounds also has benefits. Your reference points are multiplied compared to someone who has only one cultural background. You can act as a sort of cultural bridge, much like Commander Spock in Star Trek, for the Trekkies out there. Beyond that, having multiple languages is an asset, children who grow up speaking multiple languages struggle a bit at first, but then tend to outdo their peers in language mastery.

Do not be intimidated by how well your children adapt to Swedish society

This one might be slightly odd, but is an experience that many of my friends of immigrant background have shared with me.

Because your children will grow up as cultural insiders they will master the ins and outs of Swedish society much better than you. Most parents want their children to outdo them, but a parent also wants to feel useful and capable in front of their children. You might have a hard time coping with the fact that your children at a certain point, and perhaps much quicker than they would if you were in your home country, will outdo you. On top of that, in many cultures there is also a more authoritarian parent role, where children ought to know their place as children, and let the parent lead and decide.

My advice is: if you have an issue with your children making you feel inadequate, try to think of yourselves as a family unit. If your children can help you do better, that is good for all of you, try to embrace that. And why not look at it as a great opportunity to learn?

What are your best tips for parents raising children in Sweden? Share your experiences of parenting in Sweden with The Local by emailing us at [email protected]