Do Cohabiting Couples Have Rights?


Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that the number of cohabiting couples has doubled since 1996, with around 6 million people currently living with their partner.Couples thinking about property

What Are My Rights?

Many couples who share a property believe that after a certain period time they become common law spouses. There is no such thing and couples who live together are afforded no special status or protection in law in England and Wales.

However, it is not the case that if you split up with your partner, and you are not married, then you have no rights at all. Our expert Family Law Associate, Emma Hopkins Jones explains more:

"It is not correct that cohabitants have no rights – it is just that, unless there are dependent children, their rights are determined with reference to property law rather than family law.

"Where there are children of the family (not necessarily the biological child of both parents) the position is different and on separation it is possible for one parent to apply to the court for financial provision for the benefit of a child. The court then has similar, but not as extensive, powers to make orders such as for lump sums, settlement of property and “top up” maintenance."

What Else Can I Do?

There are some things that you can do to help secure your rights:

  • Property law rights - unlike married couples, cohabitants will not be entitled to their partner's property should one partner die. If you are planning to buy a home, or if your partner is moving in, you can define property law rights by owning in joint names or entering into a declaration of trust.
  • Writing a will – cohabitants can't automatically inherit their partner's estate without a will in place clearly defining that you want this to happen.
  • Pension provisions – you can make sure your partner inherits these benefits by informing your pension provider of your wishes. It is yet to be seen how the pension reforms from April this year will apply to cohabiting couples.
  • Cohabitation agreements – this can help to clearly define your rights as a couple and can be similar to a prenuptial agreement. It is important to remember that this can't override the court's jurisdiction when it comes to ensuring a child's needs are met.

Could The Law Change?

Resolution are an organisation of lawyers that are committed to dealing with family disputes in an amicable manner. Resolution have been campaigning for increased rights of cohabitants and argue that a change in the law is necessary to reflect the needs of cohabiting couples.

Emma is also an active member of Resolution, she continues:

"Successive Governments have so far shelved the Law Commission's 2006 recommendations to overhaul the law relating to cohabiting couples in England and Wales and we are lagging behind Scotland in this regard. The legal position of couples in England and Wales who live together is unsatisfactory and not in line with people’s expectations.

"A change in legislation could bring much needed clarification of the law for cohabiting couples. The main problem is that people are unsure of their rights and what they can do."

Every couple and family is different, which is why it is important to take bespoke advice on your circumstances.

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