Many people choose not to marry and prefer to live together in long term committed relationships. Within the law, this is known as cohabiting couples. It is important for cohabiting couples to know that the legal rights for unmarried couples are very different from those for married couples. If a relationship were to break down, the different legal rights can become critical when separating assets.
The myth of a common law wife and common law husband
It is a common myth that if a couple live together they will automatically be given certain legal rights by being a ‘common law wife’ or ‘common law husband’. However, this isn’t the case. In the law for England there is effectively no such thing as a ‘common law wife’ or ‘common law husband’.
Below we outline some of the issues that should be considered when cohabiting.
Property of unmarried couples
Many unmarried couples will own a home together and depending on how the property is legally held will affect how the property is split when separating. If the property is held in joint names then it will usually be divided evenly between the couple. Sometimes, one person is able to buy the other out of the property by paying for their share of the equity in the property. If this is not financially possible then the property will have to be sold so that each partner can recover their share of the property.
If a property is held in the name of just one partner then the situation can be more complicated. The starting point in this situation is that the person whose name is on the property will keep full ownership.
This becomes a particular issue when the person whose name is not on the property has made financial contributions. This may be by means of the purchase deposit, mortgage payments or paying for improvements to the property. In some cases there may have been some form of an informal arrangement between the couple that the property was intended to be jointly owned even though the legal side of changing the property title was not undertaken.
In this situation it is up to the person to justify that they are entitled to a share of the property. This can be done with the help of a solicitor and will often involve going to court.
Children of unmarried couples
When a couples separate the most important issue to resolve is that of who the children will live with and when they will have contact with the other parent. This is known as child living arrangements.
Finances of unmarried couples
In England the law treats unmarried couples as two separate individuals. This means that assets will remain in the ownership of whoever’s name they are in. For examples the bank accounts, savings and any investments. If an asset is held in joint names it will generally be divided equally.
Normally an unmarried partner cannot claim ongoing financial maintenance from an ex-partner in the same way that a married person may be able to.
If there are children from the relationship, then the parent the children lives with will be able to claim child maintenance for the children. Please see our page on child maintenance for more information.
How can SAS Daniels help?
Our specialist family law solicitors have in-depth knowledge and experience in advising on the legal rights of unmarried couples who are separating and can assess your individual circumstances to advise you on the best way forward.
We can also help you prevent these issues through creating a cohabitation agreement to set out who contributes to which elements during the relationship and what happens if the relationship breakdown. Please see our page on cohabitation agreements for more information.
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