Family & Divorce

Legal Rights Outside Marriage


Contrary to popular belief, common law marriage is a myth. Couples living together outside of marriage is called cohabitation and those couples have far fewer legal rights than married couples.

It is important when embarking on any aspect of your life to ensure that your legal rights are protected and this can be done so when cohabiting by drawing up a cohabitation agreement.

This document can cover what can be done in the event of a break up and includes aspects such as division of assets, children, and financial matters.

These must be overseen by a family law solicitor to ensure the legality of the document.
Even with a cohabitation agreement, it is important to know your rights, so we’ve outlined a few of the most important parts below.

Financial matters can be a complicated issue and there are a lot of false beliefs about this when cohabiting and it’s important to protect your financial interests.

If you and your partner both have sole accounts in your own names, neither partner can access the other account. If you have a joint account in both names, both partners can access.

If the relationship ends, the money belongs to both partners and should be divided accordingly. It is always recommended to close a joint account when separating to avoid any financial difficulties.

You are liable for any debts that are solely in your name, but not liable for any debts solely in your partners name. For any debts which are in both names and you both have “Joint and Several” responsibility for, you are both liable. A great example of this is Council Tax. A Council Tax bill is generally in both names, and no matter who pays the bill both are responsible for any debt.

Neither partner has any legal obligation to support the other financially. Any voluntary agreements suggesting otherwise will be difficult to legally enforce. If a couple cohabiting claim means tested benefits, the whole income of the couple will be accounted for.

Family issues when cohabiting are important to note as there are some stark contrasts in comparison to married couples.

Parents with parental responsibility have the right to have a say in the child’s life. If you are not the child’s birth mother and are unmarried you do not have automatic parental responsibility. It is possible for this to be obtained by registering or re-registering the birth with the mother, attaining a parental responsibility arrangement or marrying the child’s birth mother.

The process for contact in the event of a separation is the same whether married or not.
Both parents are responsible for providing for the child financially, the father is still responsible for providing financially even if he does not have parental responsibility.

Wills play a huge part in the legal rights of unmarried couples, and it is vital that each party draws a will up. If one partner dies with no will, the surviving partner will not automatically inherit anything unless both had jointly owned property.

Unlike married couples, if you inherit money or property from an unmarried partner, you will have to pay inheritance tax.

Even in the absence of a will, next of kin status is a separate entity and for unmarried couples depends on the policies of individual organisations, there is no legal stance for cohabitating couples.

Housing is one of the most complicated aspects in terms of legal rights for unmarried couples and it is wise to contact a legal representative to ensure your rights pertaining to your particular situation are clear to you.

Your legal status and rights when renting will depend on your tenancy status. If you are not named on the tenancy agreement then you have no right to stay. Consequently, it is always recommended that both parties of a cohabiting couple are named on the tenancy, creating a joint tenancy agreement. It is also possible for a sole tenancy to be converted to a joint tenancy should the need arise.

When owning a house, the sole owner always has the rights to stay in their home, unless the other partner claims beneficial interest. This process involves a court deciding if the partners contributions were significant enough to grant legal rights. Joint owners – with both names on the deeds/ mortgage – have equal rights.

It is entirely possible to separate informally when unmarried without the intervention of a court, however it is noteworthy that a court can grant rights regarding children. It is recommended to contact a solicitor prior to cohabitation to ensure your legal rights are outlined clearly and protected.

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