A recent survey by the National Centre for Social Research found that almost half of people in England and Wales believe that unmarried couples who live together have a ‘common law marriage’ and that they benefit from the same rights as married couples, particularly if they have had children. However, this is a myth.
This mistaken belief has left some people at risk of being put in financial difficulties if they separate from their partner or their partner dies. Therefore, it is important to understand the legal differences between being married (or in a civil partnership) and simply living together.
Cohabiting couples do not have any automatic legal rights over property owned by their partner, even if they are living in it together. For example, if a person moves into a home which is rented by their partner, the person moving in will most likely need permission from the landlord, their partner can ask them to leave at any time and they will not necessarily have the right to stay at the property if their partner decides to leave.
There are similar problems when one person owns a property. The partner who moves in has no rights to any share of the property, and they can be asked to leave at any time. The house can also be sold by the owner without getting their partners’ consent.
Assets and finances
As a cohabiting couple, any assets that you own that were purchased using your own money, will remain your property. The same goes for assets you owned prior to living together and items given to you as a gift.
However, anything you have bought together you will normally own in shares, depending on how much each contributed to the cost. If you have any household debts in joint names, you will both be liable for the repayments, i.e. if your partner fails to pay, you may be chased up for payment. This can cause disputes and financial problems if you and your partner decide to separate.
If you are married and your partner dies you will inherit from their will, if provisions have been made for you. If they die without a will, you may still be entitled to inherit some or all of your partner’s estate.
If you are unmarried and your partner dies without leaving a will, you will not be entitled to inherit anything from their estate, unless you have property that you jointly own. If your partner has left a will, you may have to pay inheritance tax on their estate, unlike married couples.
How to protect yourself as a cohabiting couple
The latest figures from the ONS revealed that the second largest family type in the UK was the cohabiting couple family at 3.3 million families. Although the law is yet to catch up with this ever growing demographic, there is something you can do to protect your interests as a cohabiting couple.
To make sure you and your partner are provided for and to avoid disputes and costly Court proceedings in the event of death or separation, it is a good idea to draw up a Cohabitation Agreement. This agreement can include many things, such as how much each of you contributes towards the mortgage or any household bills, what would happen to pets, and what would happen to items you buy together as a couple, should you decide to separate. It is also important for you both to have a will to ensure your wishes regarding your finances and assets are granted upon your death.
Provided that you have been up front about all of your assets and finances, it is likely that the agreement would be enforced in any Court proceedings.
Get expert advice on cohabitation
Whether you’re looking for advice on moving in together, want to create a cohabitation agreement or are separating from your partner you cohabit with, Crisp & Co can help. Our specialist cohabitation solicitors have a wealth of knowledge in the field of relationships and living together and can deliver expert advice to help you take the next steps. Get in touch today by calling 0203 857 9885 or via our contact form below.