Unmarried couples and the law: how to protect yourself

While a lot of people can’t wait to wed, just as many couples are happy sharing their lives together without officially tying the knot.

Whether you decide to get married or not, the logistics of your normal day-to-day when you choose to share your life with another person are the same. However, if you’re an unmarried couple, did you know that the law doesn’t protect you the same as it would if you were married?

In England and Wales, there are almost three million couples living together who aren’t married. Additionally, there are 1.8 million children living with parents who are not married. Despite the growth in the number of cohabitating, unmarried couples in the past decade, laws surrounding these partnerships haven’t been updated to suit today’s society.

Put simply, the law doesn’t acknowledge with strong legal rights any relationship unless it is a marriage or civil partnership. Where this really becomes apparent is if an unmarried couple decides to separate. For married couples, UK law states that the court is able to exercise their own discretion when it comes to divorce and take all of the circumstances (including the history of the relationship) into account when deciding on a fair split. But, without a marriage contract, the law doesn’t take into consideration time spent together as a couple and how that might affect divisions of finances and assets.

For couples who move in together and have children, this can become a very difficult situation. For example, you may decide to move into your partner’s house (whose name is on the deed) and have children together. However, if the relationship ends, then you would have no right to a share in the property, regardless of if you contributed to the mortgage financially or to the relationship in other ways (such as looking after the children). You would also have no legal right to personal maintenance from your partner, even if you were supported financially by them during your relationship.

In essence, you can easily be left with nothing if you split from your cohabiting partner.

Earlier this year, a case involving a cohabiting couple highlighted again the lack of legal rights surrounding unmarried couples in the UK. Ms Curran had been in a relationship with her partner for 30 years and they ran a kennel company together in Ashford, Kent. When the couple decided to separate, Ms Curran was left with nothing, as the house and business they shared were in her partner’s name.

Despite recommendations by the Law Commission back in 2007 to increase rights of cohabiting couples, the government said in 2011 that it had decided not to act on these proposed reforms. 

If you’re living together as an unmarried couple, there is a way to protect yourself in the event that your relationship breaks down – a cohabitation agreement

This legal document, sometimes called a living together agreement, covers everything including who owns what in your relationship and states how you will divide your assets, including your property, its contents and your savings, in case you split. But, most importantly, if you’re parents, a cohabitation agreement can also cover arrangements for your children with regards to how you will both support them financially and where they will live.

While this might seem like an unromantic approach, it is possibly your only safety net aside from a marriage contract that will protect you in case of separation. However, you can’t just draw up your own agreement and sign it. For this cohabitation agreement to be legally binding, you’ll need a lawyer to put together the contract, have a copy sent to your partner (who will ideally have their own, separate, lawyer), then you’ll both have to sign it and have it witnessed. The key to ensuring this agreement stands up in court is to ensure you both seek independent legal advice on the matter to ensure there are no mistakes in the contract.

On top of this, as another form of protection, it’s advisable to have your assets in joint names. For example, if you move in together, sign a joint lease or get a joint mortgage. This will give you equal rights and responsibilities on the property. 

While these measures cover you and your partner financially in case you were to separate, there is an extra measure you can take – get a will. In English law, if one partner in a cohabitating relationship dies without leaving a will, then their surviving partner does not automatically inherit what assets are left behind. But, be aware, as an unmarried couple, if you do inherit money or property from your partner, you will still be liable for inheritance tax (unlike a married couple).

So, now you know more about your rights as an unmarried couple, it’s time to start thinking about what steps you need to take to protect yourself. For advice on and assistance with cohabitation agreements, wills and any other legal queries, check out our website

Posted in: Family law

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