More than 6 million couples in the UK cohabit, according to the Office for National Statistics – more than double the number 20 years ago. However, contrary to popular belief, a common-law spouse or partner carries no legal status in English law, meaning that the distribution of cohabitees’ assets can end in lengthy and costly disputes.
“Matrimonial law is moving towards principles of transparency and fairness – and could, in fact, open the floodgates to renegotiating divorce settlements,” says Graeme Fraser, a family lawyer from Resolution. “But the law on cohabitation separation remains stuck in a time warp.”
For some this has meant leaving a relationship with nothing; others have managed to negotiate their own deals.
‘I lost my home’
Sarah, 45, from Newcastle, got nothing when she split from her partner after a decade. “I stayed at home and focused on bringing up our two children. When we spilt and he went off with a younger woman I found I had no automatic right to a share in the property. I haven’t been paying towards the mortgage or bills because I’ve been a stay-at-home mum. I feel I’ve lost my home, financial security and dignity,” she says.
“He asked me to move out. Friends are saying take him to court, but I’m drained by the situation and just want to start over again. I will make sure I get maintenance for the kids though when I feel strong enough.”
Peter Morris, family lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, says: “Cohabitees would struggle to bring a property-based claim even if they had contributed to the mortgage and the household bills.” However, he adds that if cases involve children a claim may be made to pay lump sums or settle property to meet their needs.
‘I got the dog’
“It was very emotional when we split up, and I didn’t have my practical head on,” says Jane, 35, a commissioning manager for the NHS from Harrogate. She rented a flat with her boyfriend for two years before they bought a new-build flat for £140,000. They split up three years later. “He’d paid the 10% deposit for the flat as he had savings, but I had a higher income – we split the mortgage equally,” she says. When they separated, “he didn’t want to sell the house and I didn’t want to stay living there – so we agreed that I’d take the car as I need this for work, any furniture I wanted and the dog.” In hindsight, she adds, she reckons she got the “bum deal”. “I got everything that depreciates in value – aside from the dog,” she says. “My ex is still living there and I’m sure the property has risen in value.”
BEFORE YOU MOVE IN
It’s crucial to get the financial side sorted before you cohabit with a partner. “Couples can overcome deficiencies in the law by taking advice at the time they buy a property or agree to move in together,” says Peter Morris from solicitors Irwin Mitchell. Here are some steps you can take:
■ Get a legal agreement
Cohabitation agreements set out who owns what from the outset, including savings, property and personal belongings. They can also set out how much someone has contributed to the mortgage deposit and repayments.
■ Sort property contracts
When buying a home together, cohabiting couples should decide whether to arrange the contract as joint tenants or tenants in common. Under joint tenancy, both partners own the whole property. If you are tenants in common you each own a specified share.
■ Consider pension planning Unmarried couples are not entitled to receive the state pension or bereavement allowance for deceased partners. Complete an expression of wish form to instruct your pension scheme where you want the benefits to go on death.
■ Draw up a will If you are cohabiting, it is essential you have a valid will as, despite changes to the rules of intestacy last October, cohabitees do not automatically have rights to their partner’s estate if they die without leaving a will.