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Cohabiting? What are your financial rights?

A couple walking togetherMore and more couples are shunning marriage in favour of cohabitation. But what are your financial rights when it comes to living with a partner?

The number of couples in the UK choosing to cohabit instead of marry is at an all time high. In March 2011, the Office for National Statistics presented figures stating that in 2009, marriage in England and Wales was at its lowest since 1895.

But this presents its own set of problems, as just because you’re not married, doesn’t mean your finances are not tied together. So if you are living with a partner, get clued up on your financial rights.

According to family law solicitor Amy Harris at Myers Lister Price Solicitors in Altrincham, “cohabitation is clearly on the increase but the myth of the “common law marriage” continues to persist.

“There is, and never has been, any such thing”, she says. “No matter how long you have lived with a partner, you will never acquire the same rights as a married partner.”

Other cohabitation myths include:

  • A cohabiting partner can claim maintenance from their partner if the relationship breaks down
  • An unmarried partner can claim an interest in a property even if his/her name isn’t on the mortgage
  • An unmarried partner will automatically inherit the estate if their partner dies
  • All of the above are untrue; yet legal experts specialising in separation are still dealing with couples who wrongly believed they had rights, particularly when it comes to property.

Can I claim a share of a partner’s house?

Simply put, unless the property is co-owned an unmarried partner can legally lay no claim to a property even if they’ve lived there for years. In contrast, when a marriage comes to an end, the division of marital assets is governed by matrimonial law, so a property would be equally split as joint tenants.

However, a recent legal battle between one separated couple could pave the way for more rights for unmarried couples.

Leonard Kernott and Patricia Jones are fighting their case at the Supreme Court to decide who gets what share of a £245,000 Essex house.

Ms Jones has lived in the home with the couple’s two children, paying the mortgage independently after the pair split in 1993. The house was a joint purchase in 1985 for £30,000.

Initially, the County Court ruled that Mr Kernott was entitled to just 10 per cent of the home’s value. A decision later upheld by the country’s High Court before being overturned by the Court of Appeal who ordered a 50:50 split in the ongoing legal saga.

Now the Supreme Court is charged with deciding once and for all who gets what, 18 years after they split.

More rights for cohabiting couples?

Alison Hawes of Irwin Mitchell Solicitors says “It’s quite astonishing that there is nothing in place to determine the rights of couples who break up after a long term relationship, as opposed to a marriage.

“This really is the first high profile legal battle of its kind and I hope it will pave the way for vast improvements in the system by demonstrating the need to provide clarity and peace of mind for those who choose to live together, without tying the knot, once and for all.”

How can unmarried couples protect their rights?

Amy Harris advises: “If cohabitants are concerned about what might happen if they separate from their partner, it is possible for them to enter into a Cohabitation Agreement. This would be similar to a pre-nup and can be tailored to meet parties’ particular circumstances.  Having such an agreement in place would ensure that there is a clear record of parties’ legal intentions and would help to resolve any disputes should the relationship break down.”

A Cohabitation Agreement can include:

  • Responsibility for payment of outgoings
  • Responsibility for any repairs or improvements to the property and how this should be reflected in the ownership
  • Treatment of any inheritances or gifts received
  • How the property will be dealt with – should it be shared? Sold? Or which party should move out if things don’t work out?

A family law solicitor will be able to draw a cohabitation agreement up for between £500 and £1,000. It might seem expensive but could save money in legal fees in the long-run.

Harris added: “In short, there is little or no similarity between the legal position for divorcing couples compared to cohabiting couples. The law has a broad discretion when dealing with financial settlement on divorce and it is designed to ensure a fair outcome is achieved.

“For cohabiting couples, the court has little or no discretion and applies strict principles of land law which can often result in what is perceived to be an unfair outcome.”




Lois Avery

Lois Avery

Lois joined Confused.com in 2010 after working for Dyson and as a local newspaper reporter in Wiltshire. After a year writing financial journalism at Confused.com, Lois won the 2011 'most promising newcomer' at the BIBA journalist of the year awards.

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