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Do cohabiting couples have legal rights?

18 June 2021 Written by Owen White Catlin Solicitors Category: Family Law

Clear and automatic rights are granted to those who are married or in a civil partnership, however, this is not the case for cohabiting couples. Whether you are about to move in with your partner or have lived with them for a number of years, it is important to know how the law will affect you if the relationship comes to an end.

In this article, we look to answer some of the questions unmarried couples have with regards to property rights, possessions and finances, and children. For more information on how our family lawyers can help you, get in touch by calling 020 8890 2836 or complete the online enquiry form here.

Does common law marriage exist in the UK?

In England and Wales, common-law marriages are not recognised. Having a long-standing relationship does not give a person rights to their partner’s assets, even when you have children together. If your relationship is not legally registered and your partner passes away, you also have no right to inherit their home, capital or valuables.

Property rights when cohabiting with a partner

When any relationship breaks down, one of the primary concerns is what legal rights each party has to any property. Unlike when you are married or in a civil partnership, automatic entitlement to the home does not exist for cohabiting couples. This can be a point of contention, especially if one party moves into the other's property that they either own or rent.

Rented accommodation

If one party in the relationship pays the rent and is documented in the rental agreement as the tenant, then only that person has the right to live there. If you are not a tenant and want to cohabit with your partner (who is a tenant), you need to ask the landlord for consent to move in.

What if my partner is the homeowner?

There are similar rules that apply if a home is owned by one partner in a cohabiting relationship. The property owner is the person who is entitled to live there, and the other party can be asked to leave at any time. The owner can also sell the property without needing to consult the other partner.

There are cases when one person owns a home, but the other party to the relationship may have a beneficial interest in the property. This depends on a variety of factors, such as:

  • whether the official owner documented that the non-owner is entitled to a share of the property's value,
  • if the non-owner financially contributes towards the mortgage payments, or
  • if the non-owner has put themselves in financial detriment on the understanding that they are entitled to a share of the property.

Jointly owned property

It can help to protect your rights if you own a property in joint names, however there are some considerations. Neither partner can force the other one to sell or leave the home, except via a court order. Setting up a cohabitation agreement can set in stone what each party is entitled to, minimising the risk of disputes further down the line.

Joint tenants or tenants in common?

How unmarried couples choose to register a property will affect their rights to the home if their partner dies. A joint tenancy would mean the entire property is automatically transferred to the surviving partner, while a property bought as tenants in common would result in the deceased’s shares being distributed according to their Will or intestacy rules.

There are advantages and disadvantages with both types of ownership. For example, if you both want to own the entire property, then a joint tenancy will be more attractive. However, if you have children from a previous relationship, tenants in common may be the preferred option to ensure they receive your share of the property on your death. Obtaining legal advice for your particular circumstances is always recommended.

Possessions and finances when cohabiting

As a cohabiting couple, you have no financial responsibilities to the other person and do not share ownership of investments, savings, or any items the other party owns.

When you purchase possessions entirely by yourself, they are your own property. Any items (like furniture) that are bought together, you will own it in shares based on the amount that each person contributed towards that item.

If you were given items as a gift by your partner, then you own them. Nevertheless, without written confirmation, it can be difficult to prove that they were given as a gift.

Both parties are liable for any loans or debts in joint names meaning, if your partner fails to pay bills, you will be responsible for them. 

Cohabitation and children

If you have children with your cohabiting partner then, in law, the mother will have automatic parental responsibility. The father will only have parental responsibility if:

  • the child was born after 1 December 2003 and the father's name is on the birth certificate,
  • he enters into a responsibility agreement with the mother, or
  • he has a responsibility order from the court.

It’s important to note that both parents have to financially support any children when the relationship breaks down. As such, the party with whom the child does not live with will be obliged to pay child maintenance to the other parent.

Contact our Family Law Solicitors in London, Surrey and Middlesex

If you are cohabiting with a partner, a written agreement can help minimise risks if one of you dies, or if you decide to separate. It could cover how bills are paid, other finances, childcare arrangements, power of attorney, savings and investments.

Our experienced team of family solicitors at Owen White & Catlin can take a sensitive approach in helping you to take steps to defend your interests. Use our online form or call one of our offices to discuss your needs.


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