Millions of couples at severe financial risk due to ‘common-law marriage’ myth.
If you are among the 3.3 million unmarried couples currently living together in the UK, are you aware that you could be at severe financial risk should your relationship end?
Under current law it is possible to live with someone for decades, even having children together, and then simply walk away without taking any responsibility for a former partner in the event of separation. The number of cohabiting couples has more than doubled from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million in 2017 and is the fastest growing family type. A new poll, however, reveals a lack of understanding about the rights available to such couples should their relationship end.
A survey carried out by family law group Resolution found that two-thirds of cohabiting couples wrongly believed “common-law marriage” laws exist when dividing up finances.
While married couples who divorce are legally entitled to make claims on each other’s assets, including property and pensions, the same rights do not apply to cohabitees, who usually have to come to an agreement between themselves or, in the worst case scenario, face a legal battle.
The ComRes poll of 2,000 UK adults found that 84% of people thought the government should take steps to make sure unmarried cohabiting couples knew they did not have the same legal protection as married couples. Of these respondents, 281 people were in a cohabiting relationship – two-thirds of which thought they were common-law married. A further four in five cohabitants believed that the legal rights surrounding cohabiting people who separate were “unclear”.
Resolution chair Nigel Shepherd said the poll showed that many still believed in the myth that they will get financial rights through common-law marriage.
“This means millions of cohabiting couples are unaware that they don’t have automatic claims, for example on the property they live in, if they split up. This makes it less likely they’ll take steps to protect themselves.
“In many cases, this lack of protection affects women more than men, as they are still more likely to have taken time off work to raise children.”
Mr Shepherd said society had changed and it was time for the law to catch up.
“The Government must listen to the public, legal professionals and a growing number of politicians who all agree that we need reform to provide basic rights to cohabiting couples should they separate.”
How can you protect yourself?
A cohabitation agreement is an ideal way to ensure that each party is protected and to discourage costly disputes should the relationship end. An opportune time to take action is when you first move in together. You can decide how the property will be owned and how bills will be shared. However, even if you and a partner have been cohabiting for months or even years, it’s never too late to ensure that you’ve received sound legal advice, particularly if you have children.
If buying or renting a house together, it is advisable to put both parties’ names on the tenancy agreement or to purchase in joint names and to have a trust deed in place to set out each party’s interest.
A cohabitation agreement will also help to prevent disputes should your relationship break down, setting out in writing how your property will be divided in the event of a split, on terms agreed by both parties. Ensuring that your Will reflects your current status and wishes is also crucial to avoid disputes on death.
However, Cohabitation Agreements tend to only cover property and do not take into account other financial matters, meaning individuals are not entitled to claim financial support from their partner and they have no right to a share of their pension.
How can Gotelee help?
The law surrounding cohabitation is complex and one set of issues could give rise to multiple claims in property or via The Children Act so expert legal advice is recommended if you are planning on living with your partner or buying assets together. Gotelee can provide guidance at the beginning of that relationship or, in the event of separation, towards the end, outlining exactly what your rights are.