Cohabitating couples - legal rights for unmarried couples

09 August 2016

According to latest official figures, couples are increasingly choosing cohabitation over marriage. Lisa Boileau, partner and head of family law, takes a look at what legal provisions are in place for 'common-law' relationships and what cohabiting couples can do to protect themselves legally.

Couples are increasingly choosing cohabitation over marriage, according to latest official figures*. The proportion of people choosing to live together grew from 6.8% in 2002 to 9.5% in 2015, and cohabiting couple families are the fastest growing family type in the UK, increasing by almost 30% between 2005 and 2015.

For some, the cost of a wedding (now a staggering £20,500 on average, according to a 2015 report**) is one of the biggest reasons to stay single. But do cohabiting couples actually stand to lose more than that in the long run if their unwedded bliss comes to an end?

Despite our changing life patterns over the last half century or so, English law still gives little recognition to ‘common-law’ relationships outside marriage or civil partnership.

In England and Wales, when married couples divorce or civil partners break up, both parties have a legal right to potentially apply for maintenance and their share of assets, including pensions.

For cohabiting couples, however, there are no such automatic rights - regardless of the length of the relationship and whether they have children. For example, if a partner who has always been supported financially by the other (due, perhaps, to ill health or circumstance) separates, they would have no right to maintenance if the relationship broke down.

Legal rights of cohabiting couples

If marriage is definitely off the cards, the only real solutions are to consider how best to own property between them, properly organise their banking and other financial arrangements and affairs, and to draw up a cohabitation agreement - also known as a living together agreement (or a ‘no-nup’) - setting out clearly what would happen financially if they should ever split up.

While not the most romantic of proposals, sitting down with a partner to agree who owns what, how assets have been contributed to, and how assets should be divided in the event of a split, along with what each person wants from the agreement could avoid huge costs and an enormous amount of stress in the long run.

The document becomes legally binding when both parties get independent legal advice on the agreement before signing.

Another element of protection for cohabitees comes from making a will. The only way to ensure your partner will inherit if you die is to make a will; cohabiting partners are not automatically recognised by law if a person dies without making a will. Partners can be left high and dry, and in the most distressing of circumstances, if proper arrangements have not been put in place for them to inherit the house or some of the assets in the event of their partner's unexpected death.

We have a highly experienced, dedicated team of specialist family law practitioners at Wilkin Chapman who can help with any concerns relating to cohabitation. If you’re unclear about how well you’d be protected in the event of a break-up and would like some advice, do get in touch with me or a member of our team and find out your rights and the options available to you to protect yourself moving forwards.

*ONS Statistical Bulletin
**You & Your Wedding Survey 2015

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