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Beware the myth of common law spouse

13.03.2014

Contrary to popular belief, there’s no such thing as common law marriage. In fact, the legal status of common law spouse – or the belief that couples who live together have the same rights as married couples – is a myth.

As a cohabitee, you don’t share the same rights as married couples, nor do you have any financial claim on your partner’s assets. This is the case no matter how long your relationship lasts.

Unmarried cohabitees are the fastest growing family group in the UK, yet there is little or no security for couples should they separate.

Nonetheless, the belief in common law marriage is surprisingly widespread and we see many clients who genuinely believe that such a concept exists and – more importantly – that it gives them protection.

Lack of awareness amongst cohabitees

Worryingly, research conducted in early 2013 found that that 47% of people aged 18-34 believe that cohabitating couples have the same legal rights as those who are married. It also found that 58% of people across all age groups were unaware that ‘common law marriage’ is not a recognised legal status.

Despite the myth of common law marriage, it’s actually possible to live as a couple, have children together and still walk away without having any responsibilities for your former partner’s welfare. Women are particularly vulnerable to this as it’s them who are more likely to give up work or suspend their career to look after children.

Similarly you may have lived together for decades and paid an equal amount into a mortgage, but if you separate and you’re not named on the property deeds, it’s quite likely that you’ll walk away with nothing.

In essence your lack of protection may ultimately result in injustice.

In 2012, there were 5.9m people cohabiting in the UK, double the 1996 figure, signalling how out of step the law is with how people live their lives.

But whilst there does appear to be growing political appetite to narrow the gap between the rights of cohabitating couples and those who are married, nothing has changed so far.

Protecting yourself from a legal perspective

Whilst many people can’t wait to tie the knot, many more are just as happy living together without making it official.

But if you’re living together as an unmarried couple, there is a way to protect both of your financial interests. This is known as a cohabitation agreement and is a legal document outlining what you’re entitled to if you split.

A cohabitation agreement can also cover parenting arrangements for your children and how you will both support them financially.

On top of this and as an added layer of protection, we recommend that you hold your assets – such as your home – in joint names, giving you both equal rights and responsibility for liabilities on the property.

You should also consider writing a Will to ensure that your share of property and other assets is passed on as you would’ve intended after your death.

Further information

If you’re a cohabitating couple, or you’re considering moving in together, you need to start thinking about what steps to take to protect yourselves.

To speak to our family solicitors in Bristol about your circumstances, call us on 0117 325 2929 or complete our online enquiry form. We offer all new clients a free 30 minute consultation with a family law expert to discuss your options.

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