The Common-Law Marriage Myth

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Jennifer Peebles


Phone 01264 325823


Couples are increasingly choosing to live together without marrying or becoming civil partners. In 2016 there were 3.3 million cohabiting couples or around 6.6 million cohabiting adults. This is officially the fastest growing family type, more than doubling from 1.5 million couples just 20 years ago. There have been many theories about why marriage rates are falling, but regardless the fact remains that fewer people are formalising their relationship.

 We have lost count of the number of clients who have come to us following a break-up and expected be able to formalise a 50/50 split (or better) with their ‘common-law husband’ or ‘common-law wife’. Many, particularly those who had been in a long-term relationship, assume that their legal rights will be the same as those of a divorcee i.e. a share of the house, ongoing financial support, a slice of the other half’s pension. Unfortunately, the law does not see it in that way.

 There is no such thing as a common-law marriage. People who ‘merely’ live together do not have the same status as those who are legally bound together. This can have many ramifications. Aside from a situation in which a non-married couple separates and there is an unwelcome surprise for the person who expects to get half of everything, there are two other significant aspects that need to be taken into account.

 The first is where there are children. An unmarried father does not necessarily automatically have parental responsibility for the child. The second is where one partner dies. If they hadn’t made a Will then any non-jointly owned property will not necessarily be inherited by the surviving partner (unlike in the case of a married couple).

 A similar issue was reported recently in the well-publicised case of Siobhan McLaughlin who was initially denied bereavement benefits, including widowed parent’s allowance, after her partner of 23 years (and the husband of her children) died. Had they married, she would have received widowed parent’s allowance of £118 per week until the couple’s youngest child started school. It took the Supreme Court to reverse that decision, entitling the family to the benefit. However, it will take a change in the law before others in a similar position will get the same; something that, again, highlights the disadvantages faced by those who choose not to marry.

 The answer may not necessarily be to hastily get married so as to improve your position in the event of separation or death; however you and your partner should certainly have Wills drawn up. Everyone should. There are other things that you could do, too. You could arrange for shared property and possessions to be put into your joint names. You could also put in place a cohabitation agreement specifying your respective rights and entitlements in the event that the relationship were to break down which is an easy and cost effective way to get financial peace of mind without getting married or forming a civil partnership.

For advice on any aspect of cohabitation, separation or Wills, contact one of our specialist solicitors on or 01264 353411. We would be delighted to help you.

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