What are the Rights of Couples Who Cohabit?

Cohabitation is increasingly popular in modern society where more and more couples are deciding that the traditional bonds of marriage are either too expensive, too formal, too restrictive or are simply unnecessary. It is often the case that couples who cohabit don't even consider the legal implications of their partnership and of those that do, many assume — wrongly as it turns out — that in the event of separation, they will be legally protected because they are in what is known as a "common law marriage". In reality, no such thing actually exists, or at least it is not legally recognised.

In fact, separation cases where couples have not been married can be very complex, especially if the couple in question have children.

Where children are concerned...

Mothers automatically have what is known as Parental Responsibility (PR) for their children. Fathers will also have PR in cases where they are married to the mother of the child, or when they are named on the child's birth certificate. In other cases, fathers must make an application to the court for PR or they will be required to register a Parental Responsibility Agreement.

Where money is concerned...

Aside from child maintenance, no claims can be made for regular payments from one partner to the other. Couples who cohabit have no legal rights to one another’s money when their money is held in their own individual bank accounts. In cases where their money is held in a joint account to which both partners have access, then when the relationship ends, that money belongs to both of them.

Similarly, when it comes to debt, partners are only responsible for joint accounts or items that are jointly owned. They are not liable for individually owned accounts or property. Some debts — such as a joint overdraft or loan, or debts for which one partner is a nominated guarantor — may be designated ‘joint and several’.

Where property and inheritance are concerned...

It is a fairly common misconception that living for a long time with the owner of a property somehow entitles the owner's common law partner to a share of the property when the relationship breaks down. This, however, is not necessarily the case. The manner in which property is divided following a separation is determined by stringent property laws and depends on how the property was ‘legally and beneficially owned’ throughout the relationship.

When one partner in a cohabiting couple dies, the surviving partner has no legal rights when it comes to inheritance, although if they are left without enough income on which to survive, they may make a claim. Therefore, cohabiting couples are well advised to make a will to ensure that their estate is passed along according to their wishes.

Many cohabiting couples choose to formalise their financial relationship by signing up for a Living Together Agreement, which can offer financial security for both partners.

If you are cohabiting with your partner, you would be well-advised to take legal advice from a specialist family law firm, so please give us a call at New Leaf Solicitors on 01788 555042 or email amandaweaver@newleafsolicitors.co.uk if you need any advice.