When lockdown was first imposed at the end of March, many people were forced into making a sudden decision about their living arrangements. Couples or friends who previously lived apart moved in together, families combined or expanded, and some people simply ended up cohabiting by default. No matter what the situation, it’s fair to say that this whole new experience of close-quarters cohabitation has put all of us under strain.
In a press conference on how couple should navigate social distancing, deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries replied: “If the two halves of a couple are currently in separate households, ideally they should stay in those households. The alternative might be that, for quite a significant period going forward, they should test the strength of their relationship and decide whether one wishes to be permanently resident in another household.” The other alternative, of course, was to face the prospect of an extended and unknown period of time apart, and in many cases people decided to take the plunge and quarantine together.
What that means, however, is that we suddenly have a large number of couples, friends, or even family members undertaking cohabitation without having considered certain legal implications that come with that decision.
There are several legal issues that might arise when two people who are not married or in a civil partnership live together, for example:
- Who has legal ownership of the property?
- What housing rights does each member of the relationship have?
- Who is responsible for paying the mortgage/rent/bills?
- What happens if you split up, decide to sell the property or move?
Discussing these kinds of issues is really important when a couple moves in together – helping to establish expectations and avoid misunderstandings in the future. Best case scenario: you never have to worry about much more than whose turn it is to do the washing up. Worst case scenario: one of you ends up having to move out with very little legal or financial recourse.
In all cases, a cohabitation agreement is the best way to make sure that everyone’s rights are protected as much as possible. A cohabitation agreement (or ‘living together agreement’) is a bit like a pre-nuptial agreement, setting out guidelines and intentions for all those points above. These might be financial, such as what legal interest, ownership, or investment or ownership each party has in the property; how much each party intends to contribute to mortgage/rent, bills, maintenance, and improvements to the property; or how you intend to divide up household tasks and responsibilities.
Most importantly, a cohabitation agreement should also detail what would happen in the event of separation, for example: how you would divide up household and financial assets; whether you would sell/cease renting the property, or if one of you remain living there; and the legal rights of each of you concerning these housing arrangements.
The myth of ‘common law marriage’ lulls cohabiting couples to assume that they automatically have the same legal rights as married couples, but unfortunately that is just not the case. Too often, when cohabiting couples split and there are no formal documents in place to prove that both parties have a legal interest and investment in the property, one member is left with nothing to show for their contributions. A cohabitation agreement is a simple, low-cost preventative solution to these issues, providing unmarried couples with a little more reassurance and certainty should things not work out later down the road.
Lockdown has put an enormous strain on relationships, and even the strongest couples may find themselves going through a wobbly patch – particularly if they are living together for the first time. A cohabitation agreement is a vital piece of legal documentation for any unmarried couple who wants to protect their financial and housing rights and help to avoid that worst case scenario.
For more information on cohabitation, separation, and to speak to a friendly family law solicitor about any of these issues, please get in touch to book a free 45-minute (socially distanced!) consultation. Or read more about cohabitation issues and rights on our blog here.Tags: cohabitation