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Unmarried Couples Legal Rights

Marriage is not for everyone. Many people prefer to live together in long term committed relationships without getting married. Within the law, these couples are known as cohabiting couples.

It is therefore important to realise that the legal rights given to cohabiting couples are very different from those affecting married couples. This can become critical in the event of a separation.

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The ‘common law husband’ & ‘common law wife’ myth

It is a popular myth that if a couple live together they will automatically gain certain rights by being a ‘common law wife’ or ‘common law husband’. However, this isn’t the case. There is effectively no such thing, in English law, as a ‘common law wife’ or husband when it comes to separation.

Below we outline some of the issues that should be considered when cohabiting.

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Children

The most important issue to resolve when a couple separate is that of who the children will live with and when they will have contact with the other parent. This is known as living arrangements.

Please see our pages on child living arrangements, child maintenance and unmarried fathers rights for more detailed information.

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Finances

The law treats you as two separate individuals. This means that assets such as bank accounts, savings or investments will remain in the ownership of whoever’s name they are in. Assets held in joint names will generally be divided equally.

Normally an unmarried partner cannot claim ongoing financial maintenance from a partner in the same way that a married person may be able to do.

If there are children from the relationship, then the parent the children live with will be able to claim child maintenance for the children.

Please see our page on child maintenance for more information.

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Property

Many unmarried couples will own a home together. If the property is held in joint names then it will usually be divided equally between the couple. Sometimes, one person is able to buy the other out of the property by paying for their share of the equity in the property. If this is not financially possible or desirable then the property will have to be sold so that each partner can retrieve his or her share of the property.

If a property is held in the sole name of one partner then the situation can be more complex. The starting point in this situation is that the person whose name the property is in will retain full ownership.

This becomes a particular issue when the person whose name the property is not held in has contributed financially to the property. This may be by means of mortgage payments, purchase deposit or paying for improvements to the property. In some cases there may have been some form of agreement between the couple that the property was intended to be jointly owned even though the legalities of changing the property title were not undertaken.

In this situation it is up to the person, in conjunction with their solicitor, to justify that they are entitled to a share of the property. This will often involve going to court and it is a complex area of law which requires a family solicitor with the experience of dividing assets in separation.

Our specialist family solicitors are experienced in this type of separation and can assess your individual circumstances and advise you on the best way forward. Please contact us for a consultation.

Did you know, that you could prevent these issues through a cohabitation agreement? Please see our page on cohabitation agreements for more information.

If you would like to discuss an issue with one of our family law solicitors, please contact us and one of our specialist team will be happy to advise you.

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