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Cohabitation – New Resolution research shows concerning misconceptions

It is never pleasant for anyone to think about their relationships breaking down, particularly for couples living with one another. It may seem cold and unromantic to consider contingency planning for a situation that very few couples anticipate and even fewer (well, hopefully none) wish for.

However, recent research commissioned by Resolution – a body of family lawyers in England and Wales - has shown that there are still a lot of common misconceptions when it comes to the financial rights and responsibilities that arise from unmarried cohabitation with a partner.

Those results bring to light just how worthwhile it could be for unmarried couples to consider their rights and their options should the worst happen.

Resolution research

As part of its Cohabitation Awareness Week campaign, Resolution commissioned a poll of 2,000 British adults to look into the public’s understanding of cohabitation law.

This poll found that around 27% of British people believe that the rights of unmarried couples are similar to spouses after 2 years of cohabitation. 37% believe that they will benefit from rights arising from a status of “common law marriage” after that length of time.

This is sadly not true and emphasises the need for wider awareness. 

The law: marriage vs cohabitation

Married couples automatically open financial rights and responsibilities towards one another when they tie the knot. Therefore, both parties’ assets can be divided between them fairly, regardless of whether or not they are owned legally by one party only. In some circumstances, there can also be access to regular maintenance for divorcing spouses.

Sadly, this automatic protection does not apply to unmarried couples, no matter how serious the relationship. It is difficult for unmarried individuals to claim a share in their ex-partner’s assets or income (even if that includes the family home).  

The starting point for unmarried couples is that asset ownership will follow the law (i.e., if you own it legally, you will probably keep it after the break up). If you are not registered as a legal owner (or indeed tenant on a tenancy agreement) of a property, there is no automatic right to occupy your home. This is often the case even when the non-owning party has contributed to the outgoings on the property and the family generally.

What you can do

By far the most effective way of protecting yourself is to think ahead.

You may want to draw up a cohabitation agreement: an agreed contract which sets out (amongst other things) financial intentions if your relationship breaks down. You can tailor this to your particular circumstances.

If you are buying a property together (especially with unequal contributions), you could benefit from a declaration of trust: a document which sets out how you own a property and in what shares.

In some circumstances, it may be possible to establish a ‘beneficial interest’ in property in absence of this documentation. However, it can be difficult to do so and you should be careful to take specialist legal advice on this.

Conclusion

Cohabitation is on the rise. Many family lawyers are campaigning for the law to introduce greater protection for cohabitees as a result. However, for now, there are still risks to consider for unmarried couples who live together.

We would be very happy to assist in advising you on this. Please do feel free to contact our family team on 0345 872 6666  or me personally.