A 2017 Resolution survey of family lawyers revealed that 89% of those surveyed found that when advising unmarried couples they were surprised to learn they have no legal rights. Regularly people reference “but I’m his common law wife” or “but we have been together for over 10 years and so he is as good as my husband”. There is no such thing as a common law husband or wife. It is a myth that has existed for many years and this misunderstanding can leave people in a precarious position.
A lack of knowledge about the rights, or lack of rights, of unmarried couples is particularly worrying given the number of unmarried couples living together has more than doubled from 1.5million in 1996 to 3.3million in 2017. Unmarried couples are the fastest growing family type in the UK.
Under current law it is possible to live with someone for decades and even have children together, then separate and have no responsibility for a former partner if the relationship breaks down.
This week is Resolution’s Cohabitation Awareness Week and as part of that Resolution are lobbying the government to follow the example of other countries and put in place specific laws to protect cohabitants when a relationship ends. What the government will do remains to be seen but in the meantime you can take steps to protect yourself and your family.
Enter a cohabitation agreement. This is an agreement which identifies what each person is to contribute and what should happen if the couple separate. This is really important if a property is owned by one person but the other makes financial contributions to the outgoings. It is particularly helpful in encouraging people to think about the future and ensure a structure is in place which both parties are happy with. Going through that exercise can help to avoid potential disputes in the future as it encourages you to think about what you are doing and what your intentions are in the future.
Obtain specialist legal advice from a property lawyer when purchasing a property together. Do you want to own it on a 50:50 basis? Is one person contributing more money and expecting to own a greater share? If that is the case document your wishes at the time of purchase and ensure the property is registered accordingly at the Land Registry.
If either of you have a pension, make enquiries as to whether they would pay out to an unmarried spouse in the event the pension policy holder passes away. Many companies will not. If your spouse has such a pension, it would be prudent to speak to a financial advisor about what pension provision you should be making in your own right.
Make a will. Married couples often rely on the intestacy rules to benefit their husband/wife. Unmarried couples do not have the same rights. If your spouse dies without a will the intestacy rules would mean that their estate would go entirely to blood relatives, starting with any children.
If you would like advice about any of the issues raised in this article please contact Kimberley Davies or another member of the Family team at Trethowans.
Article written by Kimberley Davies