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11 FEB 2019

Blog: There is no such thing as a ‘common law marriage’

Blog: There is no such thing as a ‘common law marriage’

Not so many moons ago, it was the norm that couples didn’t live together, or share the same bed, until they were married. However, in November 2017, the Office of National Statistics released its Families and Households in the UK 2017 report which stated that the number of unmarried couples living together has more than doubled from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million in 2017. This figure is set for a further dramatic rise in 2018, and is the fastest growing family-type in the UK.

It is very important that, when living with your partner, you have a full awareness of the difference between your rights as a cohabitee and your rights as a spouse. Many are under the misconception that ‘common law marriages’ exist, and understandably seeing as many insurance and utility companies let you select this term from a drop down list when setting up your new home, according to Rebecca Ranson, a solicitor at Maguire Law Firm.


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There are numerous ways in which your rights differ as a cohabitee and a spouse. Here are some of the key differences:

1.       Regardless of the length of the relationship, if a cohabiting partner dies without making a will, the other person will not automatically inherit anything, unless they owned their property together as joint tenants. If they were married and their partner died without a will, their husband/ wife, as their next of kin, would automatically inherit all or most of the estate, depending on the assets their partner had.

2.       In the event of an unmarried partner giving up their work to stay at home and look after the children, that person could not then make a claim in their own right for property, maintenance or pension-sharing if you separate. Married partners have the protection of section 23, Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which gives rights including but not limited to, spousal maintenance, property adjustment orders and pension sharing orders.

3.       An unmarried father does not automatically acquire parental responsibility for their natural child unless the mother puts his name on the child’s birth certificate. The father could then only acquire parental responsibility if he made a separate application to the Court or subsequently married the mother. If the couple were married at the time of the child’s birth, the father would automatically have parental responsibility.

4.       If an unmarried partner is renting their accommodation, and their girlfriend/ boyfriend moves in, in the event that they separate, the girlfriend/ boyfriend has no right to remain living there if they are asked to leave. If they were married and then separated, they would both have the right to remain in the ‘matrimonial home’ until they are divorced.  

Following the Office of National Statistics publishing the report in 2017, Resolution, national organisation of family lawyers, carried out a survey which found that two-thirds of cohabiting couples were under the misconception that ‘common law marriage’ exists when separating their finances when a relationship ends. It is important that you know your rights prior to making the decision to move in with your partner.

There are several options available to cohabiting couples, the two key considerations are of course, marriage, and secondly, a cohabitation agreement. This would stipulate exactly what belongs to who at the beginning of the relationship and how any finances would be divided in the event of a separation, (note that these will only be given weight at Court if both parties are separately represented throughout the drafting and signing). Maguire Family Law can certainly provide advice and support for those who are considering moving their partner into their home, moving into their partner’s home or renting/ buying with them elsewhere.

Rebecca Ranson is a solicitor at Maguire Law Firm.