Cohabitation: what are your rights?

Unmarried couples do not have the same rights as married couples. But what rights do you have?

What is cohabitation?

Couples will often live together before getting married. Many choose not to get married at all. This common living arrangement is sometimes known as ‘cohabitation’ and describes over five million people in the UK, as of 2019.

Do cohabiting couples have the same rights as married couples?

Unmarried couples do not have the same financial and legal rights as married couples. There is a common misconception that couples living together will eventually become ‘common law married’ after a certain amount of time. This is not the case. In fact, if your separate, or your cohabiting partner leaves you, there is often very little that you are legally entitled to.

What happens to the house?

When married couples get divorced, both parties are entitled to their share of any property. But you have no such right as a cohabiting couple.

If your partner is the sole owner of the property, you are not legally entitled to anything. This is still the case even if you have contributed to mortgage payments and property renovations. Your only option to secure any kind of property rights would be to ask a court to recognise your ‘beneficial interest’ in the house – a legal recognition of the financial contributions you have made to the house over the years. However, this is often difficult to prove and will be expensive to argue in court.

If you own the house jointly, it will be divided between you equally if you separate. However, the law doesn’t take into account how much you paid to purchase the house. For instance, paying the entire deposit on the house would still only entitle you to half of the value of the property. Any attempt to challenge this in court would be expensive and no guarantee of getting the result you want.

It is possible to own a specific share of the house as an unmarried couple by having a ‘tenancy in common agreement’. By co-owning property as tenants in common, each of you own a certain share of the property. You can decide to own unequal shares that you believe reflect different contributions towards the property and to your relationship.

How would joint savings and finances be divided?

Joint savings and finances between married couples are shared equally as part of a ‘divorce settlement. This is not the case for cohabiting couples. As an unmarried couple, you both have an equal claim to the contents of joint finances when you separate.

It’s important that you understand this distinction. Rather than being entitled to half of all joint finances like married couples are, cohabiting couples who separate have an equal right to the contents of joint bank accounts. In practice, this means that there would be nothing to stop your partner from transferring all your joint finances to a personal bank account when you separate and leaveing you with nothing.

What will happen to my possessions?

Possessions that are purchased during a marriage are generally considered to be ‘marital property’. When a married couple get divorced, both are entitled to a share of the value of this property, regardless of who bought it.

The ownership of possessions can be more complicated when you are cohabiting. Anything bought with a joint bank account would probably be considered to be owned jointly by you and your partner. But it is likely that items bought with a personal bank account would be considered the property of the account holder, even if you were cohabiting at the time of purchase.

In principle, any gifts that were exchanged between you belong to the receiver, but this can be difficult to prove in practice.

Am I entitled to financial maintenance from my ex-partner?

Married couples have a legal responsibility to support each other financially if they get divorced. Cohabiting couples, however, have no obligation to support each other financially if they separate.

How will our children be supported financially?

Whether you are cohabiting or married, your responsibilities towards your children are the same. If you separate, you have a legal duty to provide your children with suitable housing and to support them financially. This usually involves one parent making regular payments to the parent that is responsible for the majority of childcare – known as ‘child maintenance’.

Making child maintenance arrangements is a legal requirement of all parents who separate, regardless of their marital status. Child maintenance can be arranged between you and your ex-partner privately in a so-called ‘family-based arrangement’. Alternatively, you can appeal to the Child Maintenance Service to have them calculate for you what the payments should be.

What is a cohabitation agreement?

A cohabitation agreement is something you can use to put legal protections in place for you and your partner without needing to get married. It’s a legally binding document that sets out your legal rights and obligations to each other in a similar way to how a prenuptial agreement does for married couples.

A good time to enter into a cohabitation agreement is before major life events, such as buying property together or having children, but you can do it even if you have been cohabiting with your partner for many years.

Adam Rivers

Adam creates supportive, easy to read guides for The Law Superstore. He specialises in family law, helping people through divorce, child custody arrangements, and other relationship issues.

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