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Legal Rights of Unmarried Couples

Many people choose that marriage is not for them and prefer to live together in long term committed relationships rather than get married. Within the law, this is known as cohabiting couples.

Legal rights for cohabiting couples are very different from those for married couples and it is important to realise this. If a relationship were to breakdown, the different legal rights can become critical when separating assets.

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The myth of a common law wife and common law husband

It is a common 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. In the law for England and Wales there is effectively no such thing 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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Unmarried couples and finances

In England and Wales the law treats you unmarried couples 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. If an asset is held in joint names it will generally be divided equally.

Normally an unmarried partner cannot claim ongoing financial maintenance from an ex-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 of unmarried couples

Many unmarried couples will own a home together. If the property is held in joint names then it will usually be divided evenly 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 then the property will have to be sold so that each partner can recover 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 complicated. 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 purchase deposit, mortgage payments 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 legal side of changing the property title was 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.

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Unmarried couples and 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 child living arrangements.

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

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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