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Legal rights for unmarried couples – what can go wrong?

It is a sad statistic that nearly two thirds of us believe that unmarried, co-habiting couples in a ‘common law marriage’ have similar legal rights to those of married couples. They don’t.

The impact this common law ‘myth’ can have on people’s lives cannot be understated. Particularly when many couples are happy living together without any plans to get married, and may even have children together, the consequences of a relationship breakdown or death of a partner can be devastating. Even if the couple isn’t married, depending on the circumstances they might still need the services of family law firms such as you can see viewing a website like and others online. According to 2011 census figures, over 10% of adults in the UK are cohabiting, meaning many of them must be unaware of the full implications of their actions, should anything go wrong. So, what is the situation?

When a couple gets married, any property, debts, income and other assets acquired together or individually that they bring into the marriage become matrimonial assets – legally speaking, it all goes into one financial ‘pot’. During divorce proceedings, a claim can be made against these matrimonial assets. For unmarried couples, there is no equivalent provision, something which can cause considerable difficulties, especially where there is financial inequality between the (ex-)partners.

What will happen to our home?

In the case of a separation, if your home is in both your names, then you both have the right to continue living there unless you are ordered to leave by the Court. Should the house be sold, you will each receive your share of ownership as detailed in the title deeds, unless an agreement was made before the house purchase to show differently.

If the house is in your ex-partner’s name, you may have the right to stay there until it is sold, or you may be able to live there until any children are grown up. If the house it not in your name, you may not have any rights to the proceeds of sale. However, if you can show that you made a financial contribution to the house purchase (deposit, mortgage payments etc) or any other agreement was reached, then you may have a claim.

We have children together.

If you have children together and are not married, and the child was born before December 2003, or the father is not named on the birth certificate, then the father will not automatically have parental responsibility. This can only be obtained by formal agreement with the mother or, failing that, a Court Order.

If you are separating, no doubt you will both wish to find an arrangement to have contact with your children. This can be an informal arrangement or a parenting plan to set out the children’s care needs. If no agreement can be reached, the Court can deal with the issue.

The children’s main carer for is entitled to claim for Child Support, either through a private agreement between the co-parents or through the Child Maintenance Enforcement Commission.

You may also be able to obtain extra payments (school fees, accommodation, other expenses) if you can show that they are for the benefit of the child(ren), including allowing you to carry on living in the family home.

However, you have no legal rights to claim maintenance for yourself, regardless of the length of the relationship or any financial sacrifices you may have made.

My partner passed away.

Where an unmarried partner dies, the house will automatically pass to the other partner if you both owned the house as ‘beneficial joint tenants’. However, if you were ‘tenants in common’, your late partner’s share of ownership will go into his/her estate – meaning you will only get what is left to you in the Will.

If a partner dies without having made a Will, the other partner will not automatically inherit the estate unless they were married. If there is no Will and you are not a trustee, the estate will be distributed to family members and not to you. You may be able to make a claim if you were financially dependent on your partner and/or you were living together for 2+ years.

Finally, married couples are exempt from inheritance tax arising from the estate of the other. No exemptions are available for unmarried couples.

If you are in a long-term relationship and share a home with your partner without being married, it is a good idea to seek legal advice to be clear about any consequences of your relationship coming to an end. Why not take precautionary action now? Life does not always go according to plan – and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Article provided by Mike James, an independent content writer in the legal sector – learning the profession by seeking advice from well-established companies like Chichester-based firm George Ide LLP, who were consulted over the information in this piece.