Unmarried cohabiting families are the fastest growing type of family in the UK. It’s a common misconception that when you live together with your partner, you have the same rights as if you were married. However, your legal rights are completely different. This is irrespective of whether you have been living together for just a few months or even years.
The difference between married and un-married couples
When you enter into a marriage or civil partnership, you enter into a legal relationship and the law provides legislation in the event of a divorce that helps when resolving financial or even children disputes.
Whereas, if you’re living together (also known as cohabiting), there’s no legal agreement. You may refer to your partner as your common law spouse, however this in itself does not afford you any legal protection.
When a cohabiting couple separates, issues surrounding property and other assets may involve more than one piece of legislation and become complicated, all of which could turn into costly legal proceedings.
For example, let’s assume that Mr A and Ms B have been cohabiting for 15 years. Ms B has been looking after the children at home and looking after the family home which they own jointly whilst Mr A has been working to save up and paying the mortgage. If they separate, Ms B will have a claim against the house however, she will not be entitled to any of Mr A’s pension or savings that he would have built up during the time that Ms B was looking after the children and home and she may not have any funds in place to support her in her own retirement. Alternatively, if the property was not owned jointly and was in Mr A’s sole name, then Ms B will have difficulty in establishing that she has an equal share in the property.
Because unmarried couples have fewer legal rights than married couples, you don’t need to get married or enter into a civil partnership to safeguard your rights. You can enter into a cohabitation agreement also referred to as a living together agreement which is a legal agreement that is recognised by the Courts.
When entering into a relationship, you may decide to lay out what will happen to your finances (either owned by you prior to the commencement of your relationship or owned jointly with your partner) if you separate or if one of you becomes ill. It can even decide how the household bills, mortgage payments or even the family pets will be divided when the relationship ends.
For example, Ms B is 30 years old and has purchased a house in her sole name whilst working hard and saving up. She then meets Mr A and they start cohabiting. Mr A decides to move into Ms B’s house and he starts paying her a monthly payment towards the mortgage payments. When they separate, Mr A claims a share of equity against Ms B’s house claiming that his contributions towards the mortgage payments means that he wants half the equity. Ms B now faces lengthy Court proceedings which are costly and emotionally draining for her. Had she had entered into a cohabitation agreement, this probably would not have occurred.
What can a cohabitation agreement include?
An agreement can cover things like
- how you will be paying the rent, mortgage or household bills
- finances, for example what happens to joint bank accounts or pensions
- property and assets – owned before or bought while living together
- arrangements for children
- next of kin rights.
As a cohabitation agreement is a legally binding document, it is important to obtain legal advice first from a specialist Solicitor in that area of law. Your Solicitor would be able to advise you and help you decide what should be included or considered for the future, for example to accommodate what would happen if you both had children together.
Your Solicitor will also be able to advise you about any issues that are not included in the agreement. Unlike married couples, you do not automatically have the right to inherit any assets if you are a cohabiting couple. Therefore, you may need to write a Will or consider important inheritance tax implications.
You may feel that discussing the breakdown of your relationship before it has even started may sound daunting and unromantic, however your Solicitor can advise you on how to bring up the subject with your partner in a constructive way. A cohabitation agreement will provide you both with certainty and security in the event that the relationship did come to an end. It is just as important as writing your Will.
Who to contact for some advice
If you would like to put some protection in place or require some further information to know your rights, Bell Lax Solicitors offer a free 30 minute consultation to provide you with some practical advice. For more information, call Sehra Tabasum on 0121 355 0011 who is an Accredited specialist Family Solicitor at Bell Lax Solicitors.