First things first, let’s get a common misconception out of the way:
There is no such thing as a ‘common law’ marriage!
Living with your partner makes you cohabitants, but this kind of relationship is not automatically recognised in the same way as a marriage or civil partnership when it comes to English law, and will not provide you with equivalent rights or protection. The only way to protect your partner and your interests in an unmarried relationship is to draw up a cohabitation agreement and an up to date Will.
What is a cohabitation agreement?
A cohabitation agreement acts in a similar way to a prenuptial agreement, detailing your intentions in regard to your finances, children’s issues, ownership or rental of property, and how you would like to divide your assets should you one day separate. A cohabitation agreement is particularly important if you have children together, act as guardians to dependents, own a business or property together (or individually), or would like each other to inherit your estate in the event in of your death.
A cohabitation agreement can clearly set out how you would like to manage your finances, including property, paying bills, insurance, debts, individual and joint assets. This can be useful in the event of separation, as you will have legal documentation to show how you have each contributed to the household.
If you and your partner buy or rent a property together or individually, it is worthwhile including this in your cohabitation agreement with details of your investment and contributions, how you intend to spread the responsibility of mortgage or rental payments, and how you would divide up property assets should you part ways. Any significant asset should also be listed on your Wills if you wish your partner to inherit.
If you have children and are unmarried, the father does not automatically have Parental Responsibility unless the child was born before 2003 and the father is named on the birth certificate. Similarly, if one partner has a child but the other is not a biological parent, they will not have an automatic claim to Parental Responsibility unless they have adopted the child. Cohabitation agreements can provide protection for both parents and children, and ensure that your family unit is recognised by the courts.
If your relationship should break down, a cohabitation agreement can help you to negotiate the division of assets, property and organise children’s issues with far less animosity and stress. Unmarried couples have very little recourse when it comes to separation, as few of the automatic legal attributions afforded to married couples and those in civil partnerships.
As a cohabiting couple you are not automatically eligible to inherit from each other under current intestacy laws, though you may be able to pursue a claim if you were financially dependent on the deceased and/or have been living together for a minimum of two years. In all cases, it’s best to draw up a detailed Will stating clearly your relationship and intentions for inheritance.
While there is growing recognition that family laws need updating to reflect the rising numbers of cohabiting couples in the UK, the current system provides very little security for people in ‘common law’ relationships, therefore it is vital to ensure you have as much legal protection as possible to avoid difficulties in the future by drawing up a cohabitation agreement and keeping your Will up to date.
For more information and advice on cohabitation, property law, separation, and wills and probate, visit www.franceslindsay.co.uk or get in touch by calling 01628 634667 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Our family law services cover the whole of the Thames Valley, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire.cohabitation, cohabitation agreement, common law marriage, separation, unmarried couples