Article written by Mandeep Clair, Family Solicitor
Cohabitation is on the rise with an increasing number of couples choosing to live together without getting married or entering into a civil partnership. However, it is important to note that cohabiting couples do not have the same legal rights and protections as married couples. In this article, we will explore the legal landscape surrounding cohabitation including the rights and responsibilities of cohabiting couples, the financial implications of cohabitation, and steps you can take to protect your interests.
What is Cohabitation?
Cohabitation is the term used when a couple live together and share a domestic life without being married or in a civil partnership. It is important to understand there is no legal recognition of a “common law marriage” in the UK, meaning cohabiting couples do not have the same legal rights and protections as married couples.
Legal Rights and Protections for Cohabiting Couples
The legal position for cohabiting couples regarding property rights is complex. Unlike married couples, cohabiting couples do not have an automatic right to the property owned by their partner. If the property is solely owned by one partner, the other partner has no legal entitlement to it, regardless of the length of the relationship or any financial contributions made. However, there are steps that cohabiting couples can take to protect their interests in a property, such as entering into a Declaration of Trust or a Cohabitation Agreement.
A Declaration of Trust is a legally binding document that sets out each partner’s ownership rights and financial interests in a property. It can specify the respective shares of each partner and what should happen to the property in the event of a breakup or death of one of the partners. This can provide clarity and fairness, ensuring both partners are protected.
A Cohabitation Agreement is a legal document that covers various aspects of the cohabiting couple’s relationship including property ownership, financial responsibilities, and arrangements for children. It can be tailored to the specific needs and circumstances of the couple and provides a clear framework for resolving disputes and protecting each partner’s rights.
In terms of financial responsibilities, cohabiting couples do not have the same legal obligations as married couples. Each partner is responsible for their own financial affairs, and there is no automatic duty to provide financial support to the other partner upon separation. However, if there are children involved, both partners have a legal duty to financially support their child(ren). Child maintenance can be arranged to ensuring the children’s financial needs are met.
Inheritance and Wills
One area where cohabiting couples face significant challenges is inheritance. Unlike married couples, cohabiting partners do not have an automatic right to inherit from each other. If one partner dies without a valid Will, the surviving partner may not receive any inheritance. It is, therefore, crucial for cohabiting couples to make a Will to ensure their assets are distributed according to their wishes. By making a Will, you can specify who should inherit your assets, providing security and peace of mind for your partner.
In the case of cohabiting couples, the father will only have parental responsibility if he is named on the child’s birth certificate. It is important to note that even if the father is named on the birth certificate, parental responsibility may not automatically extend to stepchildren or children from previous relationships.
Legal Reform and Future Changes
There have been calls for legal reform to provide greater protection for cohabiting couples. The Law Commission has recommended changes to the law to improve the rights and financial protections for cohabiting partners. However, as of now, no significant changes have been implemented. It is important for cohabiting couples to be aware of their legal rights and to take proactive steps to protect their interests.
Protecting Your Interests as a Cohabiting Couple
Given the limited legal rights and protections for cohabiting couples, it is essential to take proactive steps to safeguard your interests. Here are some measures you can consider:
- Declaration of Trust: If you are purchasing a property together or moving into a property owned by your partner, consider creating a Declaration of Trust. This legally binding document will outline each partner’s ownership rights, financial contributions, and what should happen in the event of a breakup or death of one partner.
- Cohabitation Agreement: A Cohabitation Agreement is a comprehensive legal document that covers various aspects of your cohabiting relationship. It can address property ownership, financial responsibilities, arrangements for children, and other important matters. By having a Cohabitation Agreement in place, you can establish clear guidelines and protect your rights in the event of a dispute or breakup.
- Making a Will: Making a Will is crucial for cohabiting couples. Without a Will, your partner may not automatically inherit your assets. By making a Will, you can ensure that your partner and any children are provided for and that your assets are distributed according to your wishes.
- Parental Responsibility: If you are a father and not named on your child’s birth certificate, consider obtaining parental responsibility through a parental responsibility agreement or a court order. This will give you legal rights and responsibilities towards your child.
- Seek Legal Advice: If you have concerns about your legal rights and protections as a cohabiting couple, it is advisable to seek legal advice from a family law solicitor. They can provide guidance tailored to your specific circumstances and help you understand your legal position.
Cohabitation presents unique challenges and legal complexities. Cohabiting couples do not have the same legal rights and protections as married couples, which can leave them financially vulnerable in the event of a breakup or death of a partner. It is essential for cohabiting couples to be aware of their legal rights and to take proactive steps to protect their interests. By considering measures such as a Declaration of Trust, a Cohabitation Agreement, and making a Will, cohabiting couples can establish clear guidelines and ensure that their rights and assets are protected. Seeking legal advice from a family law solicitor is also recommended to navigate the intricacies of cohabitation law and ensure that you fully understand your legal position.