An estimated four million unmarried couples live together in the UK. Few are aware of their legal rights. Many believe that, after a couple of years of cohabiting, they automatically qualify for the term of ‘common law’ wife or husband. This is a misnomer. In fact, common law marriage ceased to be recognised in England and Wales as early as 1753. The sobering truth is that unmarried couples have virtually no rights under the law when compared to couples who are either married or in a civil partnership. This can have far-reaching consequences. Here are some of the more obvious – and alarming – disparities.
When a married couple divorce, a legally enforceable financial arrangement is a customary consequence. While maintenance payments for children are universal, only a divorced spouse is entitled to some kind of ongoing financial assistance. If an unmarried relationship breaks down, neither party is entitled to any kind of financial benefit.
The breakdown of a marriage generally leads to an equitable division of the couple’s joint wealth. However, if an unmarried couple split up, neither has an automatic right to their partner’s property. For instance, a woman might move into her boyfriend’s flat and live there for 20 years, paying – or even exceeding – her share of the bills and living expenses, but if the relationship comes to an end, the law does not recognise her contribution. In a worst case scenario, if the property is either owned or rented in one partner’s, he or she can throw the other partner out without a penny. The only way to avoid such a situation is to ensure that everything – tenancy agreements, mortgages, title deeds etc – is in joint names.
Pensions and Inheritance Tax
Unlike married couples, cohabiting couples have no rights to each other’s pension if one of them dies. And the law is equally draconian when it comes to inheritance. If a husband dies intestate – without making a will – his widow automatically inherits everything that he owned. Nor will she have to pay inheritance tax on any part of the estate. Unmarried couples, on the other hand, are regarded under the law as two separate entities, without any rights or obligations to each other if the relationship ends. In this case, should an unmarried partner die intestate, the deceased’s family will inherit any proceeds. The surviving partner is entitled to nothing. Also, if a surviving partner is willed their deceased partner’s estate, everything above £325,000 is subject to 40% tax.
Under English law, only the mother has automatic rights of access to any of the couple’s children. If an unmarried couple separate, the father can be denied any form of access to his children if the mother so wishes, unless he either:
· jointly registered the birth of the child with the mother
· signed a Parental Responsibility Agreement
· has been awarded a court order.
As the foregoing makes clear, living together as an unmarried couple carries considerable financial and emotional risks for both parties.
The Rights of Unmarried Couples was written in collaberation with Blanchards Law, experts in divorce and family law.