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What are the legal rights for unmarried couples?

26th July 2018

couple holding hands

How does the law differ when you and your partner are living together compared to when you’re married or in a civil partnership? Unless you are in a legal job, common-law partnership laws are a bit ambiguous and not as commonly known. And with more and more couples deciding not to say ‘I do’, it’s important to know your legal stance in the event of the relationship breaking down.

To find out the facts, we spoke with legal partner Deborah Jeff, the Spokesperson for Divorce Aid and Founder/Head of the Family Department at West End law firm Seddons, as well as Graeme Fraser, chairman of the cohabitation committee for family lawyer association Resolution and partner in the family law team at North London firm OGR Stock Denton LLP.

Housing

Deborah:

“If you don't have children and your partner is the sole owner of the property, the only way you may be able to claim long-term rights to the property is if you are able to show you have a 'beneficial interest' in it. This is a way of getting a court to formally recognise contributions you have made towards the home.

“If you do have children, the same applies but the court considers the needs of any minor children as a priority.”

Graeme:

“If you rent your home and the tenancy is in joint names, you have equal rights to keep it. You will both be legally responsible for paying the rent until the tenancy ends or is transferred into one name only. Be careful though, if either one of you gives notice to quit, the whole tenancy comes to an end and none of the family will be able to continue living there and you may be deemed to have made yourself ‘intentionally homeless’, which means you will not be eligible for re-housing as a homeless person.

“If you’ve been living in a home you jointly own you will probably own it in equal shares unless you agreed something different with your partner when you bought the property together. If you’ve been living in a home your partner owns and there's no other agreement or understanding in place, you will have no automatic right to stay if your partner asks you to leave. However he or she should give you reasonable notice.

“If you’ve been living in a home your partner owns, you don’t have an automatic right to a share in the value of it as you would do if you were married or in a civil partnership. You’re not entitled to any money from the property – unless you can show that you contributed to the purchase price, the mortgage payments, or major building work to the property. Non-financial contributions, such as doing building work yourself to improve the property, can also count in some circumstances.”

two children walking outside

Children

Deborah:

“Both parents are responsible for financially supporting their children. He can be contacted by the Child Maintenance Service for maintenance if he is not living with the mother. Similarly, if the child lives with the father, the mother can be contacted. Both same-sex parents are responsible for financially supporting their children if they are the children's legal parents and can be contacted by the Child Maintenance Service for maintenance.”

Graeme:

“If you have children together then as parents you share responsibility for sorting out arrangements for your children. Whoever the children spends less time living with and being cared for by will have to pay child maintenance. How much child maintenance they will pay doesn’t depend on the income of the parent receiving the maintenance for the children.

“You may be able to make a claim for a lump sum for the benefit of any children you have together and/or the transfer of a property into your name for the benefit of the children. But this won’t give you any share in the property – so you don’t get to keep it but you do have somewhere to live while you care for the children as they grow up.”

Inheritance

Deborah:

“When it comes to distributing the estate and no will/declaration has been written, a cohabiting partner has no automatic right to inherit from their deceased partner. If the deceased has no children, inheritance passes to their parents. If they are predeceased, it then passes to the deceased’s brothers and sisters. If the deceased does have children, estate shared equally between them.

“In either case, the remaining partner can present a claim against the estate if they cohabitated for more than two years leading up to the death; or the survivor was maintained by deceased.

“When it comes to inheritance tax, IHT is payable at 40% over the £325,000 threshold on bequests to cohabitants.”

Graeme:

“On death, there is no inheritance tax exemption for any transfer of assets, payments of maintenance.

“Different provisions for cohabitants apply in relation to a claim under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 (FAA 1976) from those applicable to a spouse or civil partner. An action for damages may be brought by cohabitants, but only if they have been living together in the same household as husband and wife for two years or more.”

Money, Possessions & Pensions

Deborah:

“If you are living together and you and your partner have separate bank accounts, neither of you can have access to money held in the other partner’s account.

“If you have a joint account, then both you and your partner have access to the account, regardless of whether only one of you pays into it. If your relationship ends, the money will belong to both of you. Cohabiting couples also have no claim against each other’s pensions.”

Graeme:

“If you owned, inherited or bought something before you got together, it belongs to you. If you bought something and gave it to your partner, it belongs to them.

“If you bought something out of a joint bank account it belongs to you equally, unless you have agreed to own the account in different shares. If you have, you own the object in those shares.

“If you bought something together but each contributed different amounts to the price, you own it in the shares in which you contributed, unless you have agreed differently.

“If you are in debt and it’s in your name, you alone are responsible to the lender for paying it off; it doesn’t matter who spent the money. If the debt is in both names, you are both equally responsible for paying it off but the lender can usually chase either of you for all of it.”

 

If you'd like to learn more about the laws surrounding cohabiting couples or are in need of professional advice, Graeme recommends visiting the Advicenow website.