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Why Common Law Marriage Doesn't Exist - And Four Things Unmarried Couples Need To Know Instead

04/07/2017 13:04 BST | Updated 04/07/2017 13:04 BST
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Celebrity culture is awash with famous examples of unmarried couples. Actors Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn have been living together since the early 1980s, as have Ricky Gervais and his partner Jane Fallon. Perhaps the most eccentric example is that of Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter, who before their split in 2014, even bought adjoining houses that were connected via a chandeliered tunnel.

This may be a little more extravagant than most couples are used to, but nevertheless the practice of cohabiting as a couple is now firmly embedded into the modern zeitgeist. This is demonstrated by the fact that between 1996 and 2016, the number of unmarried couples living together more than doubled from 1.5 million to 3.3 million - now accounting for 17.5% of families in the UK. Given the sharp rise in cohabitation, one might assume that more people are familiar with the legal rights associated with the practice - but this isn't the case.

In our recent survey of cohabiting couples, we found that 26% believe that common-law marriage gives unmarried couples the same legal rights as married couples. Perhaps the most interesting fact about common-law marriage is, in fact, that it doesn't exist - and it hasn't done since 1753. This leaves a significant number of people with a false sense of security, as well as being legally unprotected should things turn out for the worst. So what should cohabiting couples know about their arrangements?

Bricks and mortar: Understand how the proceeds of the property's sale would be split

Property ownership is a complicated topic - made even trickier in the event of the breakdown of a relationship. In our research, only 33% of respondents said that they were given professional advice on the different property ownership structures prior to them buying their home (for instance, whether both their names appear on the Land Registry title, as per legal ownership, or whether they have the right to share the proceeds of sale, as per beneficial ownership). Furthermore, 35% of unmarried couples were unaware that if you own your home as joint tenants, the value of the home is typically split 50:50 - regardless of how much each person contributed.

Ultimately, while there may not be chandeliered tunnels under the home, couples still invest a significant amount of money into their property and often fail to protect their investment. Seeking professional advice prior to cohabitation can help the resolution be swift and fair, should the relationship break down later on down the line.

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'Till death do us part: Prepare for the worst

While the death of a partner is the last thing on many (particularly younger) couples' minds, it is, sadly, a fact of life and poor preparation can cause a myriad of problems for the surviving cohabiter. When we asked, 44% of respondents disclosed that they had not made a will, and a further 17% said that their current will does not state that their share of the property they own should be left to their partner.

What's more, despite the fact that 40% of the cohabiters we surveyed either bought or own their home as joint tenants, nearly two thirds (59%) were unaware that as joint tenants, 50% of the home will automatically pass to the co-owner upon death, regardless of what's stated in the will.

It's a tough pill to swallow, but tragedy can strike at any moment, and having all paperwork in order and developing an awareness of the legal status of property and assets can make the process easier for the surviving partner.

The next generation: Know the entitlements

When a cohabiting relationship breaks down, the unmarried status of the couple can have implications reaching beyond just the two of them. The couple would of course be entitled to support for their children - if they have them. However, 73% of respondents didn't know what kind of support they would be entitled to for their children if they separated from their partner - a statistic that increases to 92% when looking at London alone.

If cohabiting couples have children together, both parents are expected to pay towards the cost of bringing them up until they leave school, or finish their education if they go on to university. Parents with children are also able to apply for child support in lump sum payments, and the purchase or transfer of a property for the child's benefit. The key phrase here being 'child's benefit', meaning if a house has been bought, then once the child finishes their education the house would be sold and the funds returned to the parent who originally provided them.

Looking forward: Future-proofing the relationship

Cohabitation is becoming evermore present in modern relationships. This increase in unmarried couples living together also means an increased risk of relationships breaking down, leaving partners vulnerable and without the legal protection that marriage provides.

But thanks to cohabitation agreements, that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. Our research revealed that 76% of unmarried couples had never heard of cohabitation agreements, despite the fact that they can protect property, belongings, and furniture, as well as resolving household expenses, joint accounts and financial provision for children, should things go wrong. Couples can use a cohabitation agreement as a legal document signifying their intentions in a variety of scenarios, ultimately saving huge amounts of lengthy and complex paperwork should a relationship break down.

It's no longer the case that we are vowing to stick together until the bitter end, so let's make sure that doesn't hold for our finances or homes either.