In the UK, there are many misconceptions surrounding common-law marriage. Governmental studies show that in 2021, 3.6 million couples considered themselves as ‘cohabiting’ and ‘common-law married’. This number has undoubtedly increased since that time, but the support offered to these types of relationships is still limited.
Many couples mistakenly believe that living together for an extended period grants them the same legal rights, allowances, and protection as married couples. However, this belief is rooted in a myth that relates to centuries-old legal disputes, rather than reality.
Today, we will explore and debunk some of the common law marriage myths that are still prevalent in the UK, highlighting the legal rights and obligations of cohabiting couples.
Myth 1: Common law marriage provides legal recognition
One of the most persistent myths surrounding common-law marriage is that it offers legal recognition similar to that of a formal, documented marriage.
This is far from the truth.
In the UK, couples that only cohabit do not have the same legal rights and protections as recognised married couples, regardless of how long they have lived together.
Cohabitation does not automatically create legal rights in terms of property, finances, inheritance, or child custody. This can prove difficult during separations as courts do not recognise the unity and as such, assets can be unfairly divided.
Myth 2: Cohabiting couples have the same financial protection as married couples
Another common myth is that cohabiting couples have the same financial rights and security as married couples, particularly when it comes to assets acquired and the input of joint accounts that can be created during the relationship.
Unfortunately, for cohabiting couples, the financial situation they can find themselves in if the relationship breaks down can cause serious hardship. It is integral, when entering any relationship, to remain in control of some sort of personal effects as these can be used to help you start again if the relationship does not succeed.
In the event of separation, each partner retains ownership of the assets they individually acquired, through work, benefits, trusts, or investments. However, the same can not be said with finances that have been set up for ‘shared use’. This means couples will have to engage in legal services and make a justification for the division of the assets.
In the UK, Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act (2015) relates to controlling and coercive behaviour, which lists that ‘control over finances’ falls under the issue of domestic abuse and is a serious issue. If you’re suffering from coercive control from your partner you must get assistance immediately, contact us or your local law enforcement to receive support.
Myth 3: Cohabiting couples have automatic inheritance rights
Many couples believe that living together for a specific period or having children together automatically grants them inheritance or ‘end of life’ rights which means that partners can remain in hospitals or hospices with their partner if they’re terminally sick.
Unfortunately, this is not true.
In the absence of formal marriage or civil partnership documents, cohabiting partners are not considered ‘family members’ and will not be considered for any financial or personal benefit if their partner dies.
In this regard, cohabiting couples need to draft a valid will to ensure their assets and end-of-life wishes are acted on accordingly. This includes children that are produced in the cohabitation but do not share the same last name as the testator. Any property or assets should also be listed.
Myth 4: Relationship breakdowns are easier for cohabiting couples
Some individuals believe that division after long-term cohabitation is a simpler process since no legal documents are being upheld or broken. The reality is that, while all separations can be upsetting and distressing, the guidance provided for legally recognised couples allows them to get more support and assistance if their relationships end.
Common law marriages do not have the same support.
If the relationship breaks down, cohabiting partners cannot claim spousal maintenance or the right to remain in the family home until further accommodations can be made. They must rely on the temperament of their previous partner, housing officials, and trust laws to ensure they are secure, which can be a prolonged and difficult process.
Rights and support for cohabiting couples
While parliamentary groups such as the Women and Equalities Committee have highlighted the importance of support for individuals in cohabitation and have called for tighter family laws that should be implemented to ‘protect cohabiting couples and their children from financial hardship in the event of separation’, as of writing this the government has yet to decide on a course of action to deliver this.
Cohabiting partners must understand that their legal rights differ significantly from those of married couples. They are responsible for their interests if the relationship breaks down as cohabitation does not grant automatic financial entitlements, inheritance rights, or legal recognition. To ensure they are covered, some couples have begun to seek legal assistance to draft ‘cohabitation agreements’ which can include what will happen if separation occurs for shared finances, property, and children.
ICS Law is a proud member of the Law Society and has received their accreditation, guaranteeing the very best in legal advice in all areas of Family Law such as separation, children’s law, and family mediation.
We believe it is essential for all couples to educate themselves on their rights and this is why we offer expert family support to ensure that every member is supported and safe wherever the future takes them.
For separation support and legal advice, get in touch with our proactive team now.