Cohabiting: Understanding Your Rights

In the UK, around 24% of couples choose to live together without ever getting married or entering a civil partnership. This is known as cohabitation.

In the UK, around 24% of couples choose to live together without ever getting married or entering a civil partnership. This is known as cohabitation. While it offers a sense of commitment and shared life, it's important to understand that cohabitation doesn't grant the same legal protections as marriage or civil partnership, particularly regarding finances and property.

Common Law Myth and Financial Realities

One widespread misconception is the concept of "common law marriage." Despite being a common term, there's no such legal status in the UK . Cohabiting couples, regardless of the length of their relationship, don't automatically receive the same rights as married couples or civil partners when it comes to dividing assets or finances upon separation.

The crux of property rights in cohabitation hinges on legal ownership. If a property is solely owned by one partner, the cohabiting partner, even if they have financially contributed towards the mortgage or made improvements, may not have an automatic claim to its ownership when the relationship ends. This can be a harsh reality, especially after years of cohabitation and shared contributions.

Financial Provision for Children and the Importance of Agreements

While cohabiting couples may not have the same financial rights as married couples, the Children Act 1989 offers some provisions for child support. However, compared to the financial arrangements available during a divorce, the scope of support remains limited. Cohabiting parents should be well-informed about their financial responsibilities and entitlements regarding their children, seeking legal advice if necessary.

One way for cohabiting couples to establish some level of protection is through a cohabitation agreement. This is a legal document that outlines arrangements for finances, property division, and potentially even child custody in the event of separation. It allows couples to clearly define their expectations and contributions, mitigating future disputes and potential legal complexities.

Wills and Inheritance Tax: Safeguarding Your Wishes

Another crucial consideration for cohabiting couples is creating a will. Intestacy rules, which come into effect when someone dies without a will, doesn’t provide for surviving cohabiting partners. Without a will, the deceased's assets may be distributed according to the intestacy rules, potentially leaving the surviving partner without any inheritance. A will ensures your wishes regarding the distribution of your assets are respected, including potentially leaving something to your cohabiting partner (should that be your wish).

Inheritance tax is another area where cohabiting couples face a disadvantage compared to married couples and civil partners. Assets passed down to a surviving partner may be subject to inheritance tax, whereas transfers between spouses or civil partners are generally exempt.

Seeking Legal Guidance: A Proactive Approach

Given the complexities surrounding cohabitation and the potential vulnerabilities it may leave if the relationship breaks down, it's really important for cohabiting couples to seek legal advice. A solicitor can explain your rights and options in detail, helping you navigate the legalities of cohabitation agreements, wills and other measures that safeguard both of your future interests. This proactive approach offers peace of mind and prevents unnecessary disputes in the event of separation or the death of a partner.

Cohabitation offers a unique dynamic for couples, but it's essential to be aware of the legal landscape to protect yourselves and each other. By understanding your rights, creating necessary agreements, and seeking legal guidance where needed, you can build a secure and fulfilling cohabiting relationship.

If you would like some advice on cohabitation agreements, please get in touch with Zoe Tansley and the Family Law team on 01642 244666.