Unfortunately for unmarried couples who live together, the concept of ‘common law marriage’ is a myth. Regardless of how long you have been together, the law does not recognise you as a married couple or afford you equal rights.
Nobody likes to think about death. The fact is, however, that in the UK, two thirds of us die without making a will. Anybody who dies without a will has their estate distributed under the rules of intestacy, which usually results in your possessions transferring to family members, leaving partners entitled to nothing.
If a husband, wife or civil partner dies without a will, the surviving party is relatively well protected, and automatically inherits everything left by the deceased, up to a value of £250,000. If the estate is worth more than £250,000 and there are children of the relationship, the situation is a bit more complicated – but importantly the remaining spouse is still recognised and provided for.
And what if you buy a house together? Couples who purchase a home will own it together, and will be registered in one of two ways – as joint tenants or tenants in common. Unless otherwise specified, they will be registered as joint tenants, which means that together they own the whole house. Unmarried couples who make unequal contributions to the purchase price or mortgage payments may wish to protect their investment by registering as tenants in common. This type means of ownership enables them to specify proportional ownership of the home, using whatever formula they wish. If they then separate and the property is sold, any proceeds will be split according to what was agreed at the time of the purchase.
If a married couple own a home and subsequently divorce, the starting point for deciding what happens to the house and anything else owned by the former couple is the division of everything on a 50:50 basis. Solicitors for both parties can negotiate this figure up or down, and provision will also be made for any children. The divorce courts provide greater protection and opportunities for married couples to agree upon a fair division of their assets, a protection which simply isn’t available for non-married couples who own property.
It is clear that the law treats unmarried and married couples very differently. For this reason, unmarried couples need to ensure that they take proactive steps to ensure their wishes are carried out on death, and also to protect any investments in property. One way this can be achieved is to enter into a cohabitation agreement, which stipulates how assets should be divided in the event of separation, or indeed in the tragic circumstances that your partner should pass away.
If any of the points in this article are relevant to you, and you want to clarify your legal position or wish to discuss having a cohabitation agreement drafted, please feel free to contact one of our experienced family law solicitors.