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With the subject of cohabitation between unmarried partners being in the news currently (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-e..., http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-4... ), we had a chat with some of our resident experts in matrimonial and contentious probate law to see what they had to say. Here's the thoughts of award-winning lawyers Mary Butler, Demelza Wrigley, and their teams...
Is there really such a thing as a common-law marriage?
In the eyes of the law, the short answer is a very firm “no”. The popular misconception that a so-called common-law husband or wife has legal rights on the breakdown of a relationship, or on the death of their partner, is sadly one that we see all too often. That’s why we’re glad to see the issue receiving some much-needed media attention, following a recent survey by Resolution which found that two-thirds of cohabiting couples wrongly believe that unmarried relationships (“common-law marriages”) are recognised by the law.
Whether you’ve lived together for a year, for decades or for anything in between, the lack of legal rights for cohabitees can come as a nasty shock if and when the relationship comes to an end. The truth is that no matter how long the relationship lasted, unmarried cohabitees have very few rights on separation or even on their partner’s death. There’s a growing view that this is out of step with the way that many of us are living our lives these days - according to the Office for National Statistics there are 3.3 million cohabiting couples in the UK and it’s the fastest-growing type of family arrangement.
On the breakdown of their relationship, cohabitees are often surprised, and devastated, to discover that they don’t automatically have an interest in property or assets owned in their partner’s sole name, and an interest in property can be difficult to establish. Similarly, there is no automatic interest in pensions or savings in the sole name of the other party, even though the relationship may have been ongoing for decades. Unlike when married couples divorce, this is the case even where one partner might have sacrificed their career for the sake of bringing up the children while the other was the “breadwinner”.
Likewise, cohabitees might be horrified to find that they have no right to inherit anything that belonged solely to their partner. We have represented many people who have found themselves in financial need following their partner’s death. While it is often possible to make a claim against their partner’s estate in these circumstances, doing so adds an extra complication at what is already an extremely difficult time. On top of that, the rules of intestacy (which apply where someone dies without a will) can have unexpected results, meaning that a cohabitee stands to inherit nothing while perhaps distant relatives benefit.
The Resolution survey results really highlight the importance of understanding what legal rights you have – and don’t have – and finding out what your options are. If you think that you might benefit from a free, no-obligation chat about how you can make sure that your loved ones are provided for then give us a call on 0114 249 59 69.