One of the most notable social changes in recent decades in England and Wales is the growth in unmarried cohabitation or domestic partnerships. Sixty years ago, only one in a hundred adults lived with someone outside of marriage. Today, it is one in every six adults. Cohabiting has become a usual way of life for many families.

Living together gives no legal standing to a couple in the UK, unlike marriage or civil partnerships. There is a misnomer that couples become ‘common law partners’ and gain rights when they have cohabited with one another for a long period of time. This is not correct. Although the term ’common law partners’ is often used, it brings with it no particular rights against the other upon separation.

The UK Law Commission suggested ‘financial relief on separation’ for common law partners in 2007. It would be based on ‘qualifying contributions’ to the relationship, and couples have to have a child together or have lived together for a minimum period. In 2008, it was decided that further research about the cost and effectiveness of such a scheme in the UK are necessary. To date, there has been no indication of what would happen next.  (However, in Scotland, couples can make limited claims against each other when they break up or if a partner dies).

Cohabitation Agreements before Cohabiting

Also known as a ‘living together’ Agreement, Cohabitation Agreements aim to clarify what you will do at the possible breakdown of the relationship.  

Such an Agreement can cover who owns what and how to resolve financial issues, joint accounts, and arrangements for children. As a result, the potential for dispute if your relationship breaks down is significantly reduced.

Make a Will

No matter how long you’ve been together, if you are not legally married to your partner, you cannot claim anything from that person – either at breakup or from their estate after death.  Keeping your Will up to date can cancel out headaches at a later stage.

When a Cohabiting Couple’s Relationship Breaks Down

Whether or not you have entered into a Cohabitation Agreement, this does not prevent disputes arising. A family home is usually a huge dispute point – perhaps you own an equity share, but your name is not on the title deed. So what happens when you separate? Robertsons Family Law can advise on the possible need to use a TOLATA claim to determine your beneficial rights and/or force the sale of a property and help you recover what you spent.

The area of the law that deals with domestic partnerships are very fact-specific. Perhaps you want to establish the legal standing of your Cohabitation Agreement or need to establish your rights if no Agreement exists. It is essential to talk to a family law professional to understand your legal position.

There is also the possibility of entering into a Separation Agreement which sets out how property is going to be distributed and help prevent any future claim that your partner could make against you.

The blended family

Another aspect of cohabiting is children from previous relationships.  An unmarried partner does not have parental responsibility for a partner’s child and is not legally obliged to share any financial burdens. However, some couples agree to share childcare costs, which may have legal implications if one partner should die. Again, Robertsons Family Law can help you understand your legal position.

Read more about this topic on our Legal Insights pages: Cohabitation Agreements and Cohabitant Claims.

FAQs on Cohabitation and Cohabitation Agreements

Should I have an agreement with my partner when we start living together?

When you’re in love and decide to move in with someone, you don’t think about a possible breakup.  However, cohabiting in the UK is risky.  You have fewer rights when cohabiting than you do in marriage, and you could be left with the short straw if you don’t take the time to think through all potential outcomes. 

Cohabitation Agreements may sound unnecessary at the beginning of a relationship, but many disputes we see are about finances. Therefore, it is wise to iron things out and get something down in black and white before moving in together.  At Robertsons Family Law, we have solicitors with years of experience that can advise you.

‘We lived together for ten years.   A part of the family home should be mine, should it not?’

This is a popular misconception.  You have no ‘automatic’ rights in cohabitation no matter how long you’ve been together. If you are unmarried and not in a civil partnership, the right to a financial claim to the family home depends on ownership and, to a lesser extent, contributions made to the property.  

Please get in touch with us for legal advice if you think you might have a claim to a property held in a partner’s name.

‘What happens if we own a property in both our names and we want to separate?’

The presumption will be to split the property equally unless you have entered into a Declaration of Trust.  However, if the parties contributed differently to the mortgage or in putting down a deposit, it may alter the outcome.

What is your best advice if we live together, but want to buy a house?

Ideally, both of you should state your intentions regarding ownership of the property by way of a Deed. Should you put in unequal contributions to the purchase price, it is all the more important to state what each would receive if you should separate and the property is sold. This can also be covered in a Cohabitation Agreement. It would also help to consider drafting a Will that can stipulate what will happen to the property if someone dies.

We are not married and live together in my partner’s house.   Will I be able to stay in the house in the event of my partner dying?

It will depend on your partner’s Will. If no provision were made for you, the ownership of the house would fall to your partner’s other heirs or family according to intestacy rules.   In those circumstances, the only way you can remain in the property will be if the house’s new owner agrees.  It would be best to discuss this with your partner and make Wills to prevent future uncertainty.

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