Love v. Pragmatism Important matters unmarried couples should consider when co-habiting

Many unmarried couples are misled by the myth that a common law marriage acknowledges their rights to be equal to that of their married counterparts. For some this misapprehension is never challenged, but for others the jarring reality of separation can be a crude awakening to their position and rights as an ex-partner.

According the Office of National Statistics in 2017 it was reported that the number of unmarried couples co-habiting had reached 3.3 million, more than double the figure since 1996, and the figure continues to rise. Yet the law has not caught up to protect the rights of these new family make ups, the Co-habitation Rights Bill is still in its early stages and is unlikely to be passed into law for some time. This has seen an increase in the number of costly legal disputes when the relationship breaks down as the couple were unaware there is no legal protection in English law as a common-law spouse or partner.


X moves in with partner Z after two years together. The property is solely in Z’s name. It is verbally agreed that the cost of household bills and mortgage payments will be split equally between X and Z. Three years later the couple have their first child. It is decided X will stay at home to look after the child whilst Z continues to work, being the sole earner for the household. Two years later the couple welcome their second child. X continues to stay at home, Z continues to work. Five years later X returns to part time work and begins to contribute toward the household bills and mortgage payments again, though Z still covers most of the outgoings. After twenty years together, eighteen of those co-habiting:

  • The couple separates
  • Z dies without a valid Will

X is entitled to nothing from the relationship. X has no rights to the home they have financially contributed towards and no rights to Z’s finances.

When separated, X must rely on the goodwill of Z to receive any financial maintenance. Failing that, the alternative is going through the courts which is often expensive, but a job that must be carried out to ensure the children of the family are housed.

When married, both parties have a legal right to 50% of all property and finances accumulated during the relationship. That is not to say that marriage is the only option to guarantee personal and financial security in a long-term relationship. It is evidenced that marriage is not the answer for a growing number of the population. There are alternative options to consider before co-habiting that can practically prepare you for your future:

A co-habitation agreement

A legal document setting out exactly what assets each partner owns and in what proportion. This includes your property, its contents, savings and personal belongings. They can also identify how much someone has contributed to mortgage repayments to a home owned solely by one partner and ensure that it is financially reflected should you separate. In this agreement you make note of what is to happen in the event of a relationship breakdown,  removing the necessity of court proceedings at a later date.

Draw up a Will

It is essential that both parties have a valid Will before living together as cohabitees do not have automatic rights to their partner’s estate should they die without leaving a valid Will.

Declaration/Deed of Trust

A legally binding document that records the financial arrangements between joint owners of a property and/or those who have a financial interest in the property. It removes any financial uncertainty and ensures that each person’s investment is protected.

Sutton & Co Solicitors can assist with all the above services, providing compassionate and impartial legal advice to help you better understand your position.

Some argue that it can seem vulgar, ill-fated or unfeeling to consider these options, but the alternatives are far more severe. Uncertainty and instability is kindling to a toxic environment when a relationship has ended, an unwanted consequence during an already difficult period, especially with children involved. This pragmatic approach from the outset facilitates a healthier, more equal relationship and allows for a secure future, whatever that may be.

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