This is Cohabitation Awareness Week and a good reminder to talk about how unmarried couples can protect themselves in the face of very limited legal rights.
There are about seven million people living together as unmarried couples in the UK. And although this is the fastest growing type of family in the UK, the law has not caught up. It is an urban myth that cohabitees acquire ‘common law’ rights after living together for a certain length of time, or after having children. Unfortunately there is no such thing as a ‘common law’ marriage.
The reality is that unmarried couples have very limited rights under the law if their relationship breaks down. This could lead to very unfair outcomes, even after a very long relationship of mutual support.
A cohabitation agreement can make the difference between a fair outcome and a financial nightmare, by setting out who owns what and in what proportion – and how it will be divided should you separate.
Here are some reasons why you may need a cohabitation agreement:
1. Children – for most parents their children are their number one priority and a cohabitation agreement can outline how children will be supported. Having these discussions when things are going well can avoid a lot of heartache later on if a couple splits up.
2. Property – a cohabitation agreement can set out what should happen to any property when a couple splits up. Without this kind of agreement, unless a property is jointly owned, the partner whose name is not on the title deeds would not get a share unless limited circumstances apply which would enable a claim.
3. Finances – the agreement can include how joint bank accounts, debts and big purchases like cars will be treated.
4. Peace of mind – a cohabitation agreement can give you peace of mind, so that you both know what will happen if you split up. It makes sure that both cohabitees are aware of how much, or how little they own in a shared property and can take steps with that in mind.
5. Avoiding extra heartache – no one wants to think about the potential end of a relationship, but taking time to plan while all is well can save a lot of stress and worry should it happen in the future. Unmarried partnerships are likely to continue to increase and there is very little political appetite to increase their rights, despite the support of some very high profile family law judges. This is why I would urge cohabiting couples to consider their legal situation and take steps to protect themselves.
Sarah Atkinson is a partner in the family team at Stephens Scown LLP and a member of Resolution, the national organisation for family lawyers. To contact Sarah call 01872 265100, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.stephens-scown.co.uk
Cohabitation Awareness Week (27 November to 3 December 2017) is organised by Resolution and aims to raise awareness of the lack of rights for unmarried couples in the UK and highlight the way couples can protect themselves.