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The rights cohabiting couples do (and don't) have

Cohabiting couples are now the fastest growing family type, and it is estimated that over 3 million families in the UK live this way. There is a common misconception that after a time, a common law marriage arises between cohabiting couples. The truth is that simply living together for a length of time does not give rise to any form of legal protection if the relationship were to sadly come to an end. The law has not developed in line with changes in society, and as a result unmarried couples are often left without the legal protection they might assume exists, which often only comes to light when it is too late.

If the relationship ends, unmarried couples do not have any automatic legal entitlement to make a claim against each other's assets as married couples do. They have no right to claim spousal maintenance and can only seek support for any children they may have had together. If an unmarried couple owns property jointly, it will be divided 50/50 unless the couple have clearly agreed that the proceeds of sale are to be divided in unequal shares. Conversely, if the property is held in one person's sole name the other person has no legal right to claim against it, unless they can establish that there was a common intention that the property was to be owned jointly. This is difficult to prove, and the burden would fall on the person looking to demonstrate this.

If the couple have children, there are applications that can be made to the court to enable a person to remain living in the family home with the children whilst they are under 18 and avoid selling the property, effectively borrowing the other person's share. However, these applications, if successful, are made for the benefit of the children, and only protect the applicant whilst the children are minors.

If you are living with your partner, there are things you can do to safeguard yourselves in the event that your relationship sadly breaks down. If you own a property together and are making unequal contributions to the purchase price, you should enter into a Declaration of Trust which will allow you to expressly state the amount each of you would be entitled to. You could also enter into a Cohabitation Agreement which sets out both of your intentions in relation to property, other assets and any debts should you separate.

Unmarried couples also have no automatic right to inherit if their partner dies. If this concerns you, you should consider making your partner a beneficiary under your will to ensure they are provided for in the event of your death. Taking out a life insurance policy with your partner as the named beneficiary would also be a good way of ensuring your partner and family are provided for in the event of your death.

If you are living with your partner or are thinking of moving in together and have queries about how this might affect you or your family in the future, contact BPE’s Family team for advice on how we can help.


These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.

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