More and more couples in the UK are choosing to live together in cohabitation, rather than getting married or entering a civil partnership. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of cohabiting couples has risen 25% in the past 10 years, with 3.4 million households recorded as having this dynamic last year.
However cohabiting couples do not have access to the same legal and financial rights as those in a legal union. Karen Brookes, Chartered Legal Executive at our Barnsley Office, said “many couples class themselves as a ‘common law spouse’ but have no idea that this term simply does not exist, and never has done”. Therefore many of these millions of individuals are sharing family and financial responsibilities, but with no legal framework to fall back on if things go wrong.
The milestone of moving in with your partner may come at the start of your career, when you’re not yet on the property ladder; or when you have already acquired a number of assets such as property, savings and a business. Whatever life stage you’re at, you should use this opportunity to take stock of you assets, and understand the rights you have. This way you can take the correct precautions to protect your interests, and make arrangements for the future.
Differences in rights for cohabiting couples
Only those in a marriage or civil partnership can rely on laws to divide up assets and finances upon separation. In the event of divorce, legal partners can make claims for property, assets, shares of pension and ongoing maintenance. None of which would be the case if a cohabiting relationship ended.
“A client may have cohabited with a man for 30 years and bore him 5 children, however if she has not contributed financially to the assets of the man, she is not entitled to anything at all. Yet a married woman in the same position would be entitled to half all of the assets, even is she had never earned a penny, her contribution being looking after the family”Karen Brookes, Chartered Legal Executive
In the unfortunate circumstance of their partner passing away, a surviving spouse will have inheritance rights even if there is no Will. However, no matter how long a cohabiting couple has been together, they will not automatically inherit without a Will.
Due to their relationship status carrying no legal weight, and having minimal rights, it is important cohabiting couples are aware of the actions they can take.
How to legally protect yourself while cohabiting
It is essential both parties write a Will if they wish for their partner to inherit their assets; and to also include any children involved or make arrangements for their care. Karen adds, “Putting a shared property in joint names as beneficial joint tenants would ensure that in the event of one party dying that the other would inherit the house”.
Some rights can be formalised and protected by drawing up a legal document, known as a cohabitation agreement. With the correct legal advice, this can set out what is to happen in the event of a relationship breakdown.
“Cohabitees who contribute to the purchase of a property owned by their partner, either by means of payment towards a deposit or renovations, are still able to make a claim to court under the Trusts of Land Act even if no other agreement is entered into”Karen Brookes, Chartered Legal Executive
Modern family structures can be complicated, so it is recommended you seek legal advice about any concerns. If you have any queries regarding your family arrangements and rights, feel free to contact us, we’re happy to help.