Being in a lengthy relationship doesn’t afford you the same legal rights and benefits as a married couple. Some may believe that living together as ‘husband and wife’ can be viewed as a ‘common-law marriage’. Unfortunately, there is no such thing.
This is a concern given cohabitating couples are the UK’s fastest growing family type. The number of couples living together unmarried in 2017 was 3.3 million, which is more than double the 1.5 million couples since 1996, according to the Office for National Statistics. The myth of a supposed common law marriage needs to end because unmarried couples are only becoming aware of their legal rights, or lack of, upon separation from their long-term partner or upon their partner’s death.
Unlike a married couple, the law does not recognise unmarried couples and this can cause confusion and stress in a number of circumstances. For example, if your partner was to pass away, the law will apply the rules of intestacy and distribute your assets to your blood relatives, having no regard the length of your relationship – that is, unless your partner has a Will that clearly includes you in it. Similarly, when purchasing a property the applicable law will be Property Law and the Trust of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996 and it will depend entirely on how the property is held as to how the property will be divided upon sale or death.
In a recent case between Beverley Chapman and her ex-partner Shree Ladwa, Ms Ladwa was awarded half of their £1.3 million former home as the property was held in joint names. Ms Chapman paid off the mortgage on their home and is said to have given Ms Ladwa almost £400,000 over the course of their 16 year relationship. Ms Chapman argued that Ms Ladwa was not entitled to anything from the home and insisted she had only put the property in joint names after being pestered by Ms Ladwa. As an unmarried couple, the Court applied the law of property and law of trusts and found that as the property was held in joint names it was intended to be jointly owned. This case demonstrates the need for couples living together without being married to be more informed about their legal rights upon a relationship breakdown and the effects this can have on their assets.
In order to avoid any additional stress at the time of a relationship breakdown or upon the death of your partner, you may wish to consider putting a Cohabitation Agreement in place. This agreement, also known as a Living Together Agreement, reflects how you both wish for any assets to be divided in the event of separation or death. If the agreement is properly drafted and both you and your partner have received independent legal advice, the agreement is likely to be enforceable provided it has been executed as a deed.
Our experienced family law team can help couples put an effective plan in place. Some may not think this is the most favourable topic for couples to consider, however it is paramount to ensure your assets are protected in the future. It also allows for a stable place of shared understanding should you be going through an emotional relationship breakdown and can allow for more open communication.
Contact one of our family lawyers at your local branch to discuss how a Cohabitation Agreement can suit your needs as a couple living together.
 Will Humphries, ‘“Housewife” seeks share of girlfriend’s £1.3m home’, The Times (19 January 2018).