In recent years, it has become increasingly common for people to choose to live together rather than to get married or enter a civil partnership.
Living with a partner to whom you are not married or in a civil partnership with is often termed as ‘cohabitation’.
In the UK, the cohabiting couple family continues to be the fastest growing family type in the UK, reaching 3.2 million cohabiting couple families in 2015. Cohabiting couple families include both opposite sex and same sex cohabiting couples.
With cohabitation on the increase, it is important to be aware of all of the legal differences there are between being married/in a civil partnership and living together.
Does cohabitation allow me the same rights as marriage/civil partnership?
Generally speaking, you will have fewer rights if you are living together than if you are married or in a civil partnership. Many people wrongly believe that with the passage of time, cohabiting couples enjoy the same rights as married couples. There is an illusion that living together for a number of years earns a couple the titles of ‘common law husband and wife’ which gives them the same legal rights as married couples, although this is not legally the case. This misconception can unfortunately lead to a cohabiting couple being left in a vulnerable position should the relationship break down.
Cohabitation and Property
Living with someone will not automatically give you rights to the home you share with them.
For example, if you cohabit with your partner in a property which is in their sole name and your relationship breaks down, the Court will have no power to alter the property rights, regardless of whether you and your partner have children together or have both been contributing to the mortgage and other outgoings. It may be that a proprietary interest can be argued in your favour; however the rights and remedies that you have are drastically reduced in comparison to those available to persons who are married or in a civil partnership.
Similarly, if you and your partner cohabit in a property that is owned jointly and the relationship later breaks down, the general principle is ‘each keeps their own’. You will both be equally liable for any mortgage debt, regardless of whether you have had to leave the home or not.
If you and your partner are living together in a rented property, only the person named in the tenancy agreement generally has the right to live there and this person solely holds the responsibility for paying the rent. If you are not named on the tenancy agreement, the named tenant can ask you to move out at any time (after giving reasonable notice) and you have no automatic right to stay if the named tenant decides to leave.
Cohabitation and Inheritance
It is also worth noting that if your partner dies, cohabiting does not automatically entitle you to inherit in the absence of a Will, regardless of how many years you have been living together. If your partner has made a Will and named you as a beneficiary, any assets you receive may be subject to inheritance tax as there is no exemption for unmarried couples.
If your partner has not made a Will or has not named you in their Will, as an unmarried partner you may be able to make a financial claim on their Estate. However, making such a claim can be complex and can involve costly legal proceedings.
I am living with my partner but we are not married. How can I best protect my interests?
There are safeguards that can be put in place for cohabiting couples. You can enter into a Cohabitation Agreement which details what you agree should happen in the event of any future separation. Such an agreement will be legally binding if made under the right conditions. Both you and your partner making Wills will also protect your interests in any inheritance you may have in the future.
It is therefore wise to seek professional legal advice whether you are entering into a cohabitation relationship or indeed if the relationship has ended and there are issues to be resolved.