Cohabiting Couples – Myths and Risks

Millions of cohabiting couples within the UK are unaware of the severe financial risk, if their relationship were to break down, as a result of the current legal system and laws.

The number of unmarried couples living together has more than doubled since 1996 and we now see approximately 3.3 million couples cohabiting in the UK. Although this is now the fasted growing family type within the UK a new poll has shown that many do not know about their rights should the relationship end.  This poll was commissioned by Resolution and comes at the start of Cohabitation Awareness Week, this week.

The poll found that;

  • 2/3 of people in cohabiting relationships are unaware that there is no such thing as ‘common-law marriage’ in the UK;
  • 4 in 5 cohabitants agree that the legal rights of cohabiting couples who separate are unclear;
  • 79% of the public agree that there is a need for greater legal protection for unmarried couples when separating; and
  • 84% of the public agree that the Government should take steps to ensure unmarried coupled are aware that they don’t have the same legal protection as married couples.

Under current UK laws it is possible to have lived with someone for decades, even have children with them and then if the relationship breaks down walk away with nothing.

Cohabiting v Marriage

Not many people understand how cohabiting and marriage differ here are six ways your rights differ:

  1. If your partner dies without a will then you would not automatically inherit everything, unless jointly owned – A married partner would inherit all or some of the estate.
  2. An unmarried partner who stays at home to care for children cannot make claims for maintenance or support – A married partner can make a claim for maintenance or support.
  3. Cohabiting partners cannot access their partner’s bank accounts if they die – A married couple may be allowed to withdraw the balance providing the amount is small.
  4. Unmarried couples can separate without going to court – Married couples have to get a divorce from the courts.
  5. Cohabiting couples are not legally obliged to support each other financially or in any other way – Married couples have a legal obligation to support one another.
  6. If you are the unmarried partner of a tenant, you have no right to stay in the property and may be asked to leave – Married partners have the legal right to live in the “matrimonial home”.

Case Study

Yvonne has five children with her partner of 17 years however when the relationship broke down she was shocked to find out that she was entitled to nothing. She had given up work to look after the children and fill the ‘traditional role of wife’, she didn’t realise that without being married or having a cohabitation agreement she was completely unprotected.

How to best protect yourself

Resolution suggests that if marriage or civil partnership are not an option then they would suggest protecting both yourself and your partner in any of these ways;

  • A cohabitation agreement – this sets out joint intentions for things like property, finances and child arrangements should you split up. It can be bespoke to yourselves and can cover anything that you agree with. Whilst this agreement is helpful and outlines the parties intentions it is not a legally binding agreement. 
  • A Declaration of Trust –  this sets out how you want to own a property and in what shares, it can also cover what happens to the property should you split up.
  • A Will – If one partner in an unmarried couple dies, the other partner does not have an automatic right to inherit any possessions or property without a will being put in place.

If you are living with someone to whom you are not married it is wise to seek legal advice to find out what options are best for your circumstances and family. If you need advice you can contact our Family Department or our Private Client Department who will be pleased to advise you.


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