Once you and your partner have lived together for a given number of years, the law recognises your arrangement as a “Common Law” marriage, entitling you to the same (or at least very similar) rights as an officially married couple.
At least, that’s what around half of the British public believe, despite it being completely untrue.
main image | Autumn Nicole via JuneBug Weddings
The number of cohabiting couples in the UK is steadily increasing, almost one in every five families choosing an informal arrangement over a religious or legal agreement. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, combined with the myth of common law marriage rights, it leaves a large number of the population financially and legally vulnerable in the event of separation or death.
If you are one of the 3.3 million cohabiting families living in the UK, it’s important to understand the myths of common law marriage, and what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones for the future.
Myth: Both parents will have responsibility of their children.
If an unmarried couple raises a family together, the father does not automatically have parental responsibility in the event of a split, unless the child was born after 1st December 2003. However, the father will still be liable for child support.
Myth: You can retain 50% of your shared belongings and property.
In England and Wales, anything amassed during the course of a married relationship is considered “marital property”, and is typically split equally between partners in the event of a divorce or ending of a civil partnership. For cohabiting couples, there is no such guarantee. If purchases have been made in the name of one party, they are the sole owner in the eyes of the law.
Myth: You can claim an equivalent of spousal maintenance in the event of a split.
It’s called “spousal” maintenance for a reason, and just like property and possessions, without a marriage ceremony, nobody is entitled to any ongoing payments from their ex-partner at the end of a relationship. Without any kind of formal agreement, the disadvantaged party can only claim support for any children they may have together.
Myth: A cohabiting partner has the same inheritance rights as a spouse.
After no amount of time will a cohabiting spouse automatically have the same inheritance rights as a widow or widower. In fact, if the deceased did not write a will, then a cohabitant will not be legally recognised at all, and according to the Rules of Intestacy, all assets will be passed to a living spouse (if separated but not divorced), or surviving children. In some cases this can be challenged, but chances of success are limited.
Myth: A surviving partner can remain in their home.
If property ownership or tenancy is only in the name of a deceased partner, the survivor has no legal entitlement to remain in the property.
Myth: Tax benefits will become available.
In the UK, married couples are exempt from certain tax laws, such as being able to transfer assets between each other without being required to pay capital gains tax or inheritance tax. A cohabiting couple will have no such benefits.
How to protect yourself and your family:
- Write a “cohabitation agreement” that details the conditions of your arrangement and the contributions both parties make. This should make it easier to divide assets fairly in the event of a split. An informal document may still be ignored by a court, but a legally-binding deed can be drawn up by a solicitor specialising in cohabitation law.
- Keep a record of any payments you both make into any investments or joint accounts. Even if they are made in one person’s name, bank statements or receipts may be used to claim ownership or prove a financial stake in joint assets that may otherwise be lost.
- If the current arrangement means that financial and domestic responsibilities are split, it’s recommended that you write a formal contract detailing payments or property ownership in the event of a break up. This should include custody of any children or pets.
- Should parents wish to share the legal responsibility for their child, they will need to draw up a formal agreement, or the father will have to obtain a court order to do so.
- Both partners should write a will, updating it for any change of circumstances, for example, the birth of a child or a significant financial investment.
- Do not rely on one set of savings for retirement, as many pension schemes will not recognise an unmarried partner in the event of a beneficiary’s death. It’s better to maintain your own savings, including a personal pension which is possible even if you are not working.
Current UK laws make it beneficial for families to be joined in a marriage or civil partnership, however with changing modern views it is possible that cohabiting couples will gradually be given more rights. In the meantime, no matter how much you love your partner and hope you will stay together forever, make sure that you work out the best way to keep yourself and your family safe in the future.
I hope this post has been helpful, let me know if there other aspects you’d like covered on the blog in the future. Its so important to go in to things knowing all the information, whilst I love all the fluff and fancy, you gotta be smart!