It’s common to misunderstand family law
The word “common” can have many uses.
Yesterday I went for a walk on the common, closely followed by my usual (or common) afternoon tea and a read of the papers which was filled with ordinary (or common) people making the usual (or common) mistakes.
The most common mistake being talked about at the moment, is that almost half the people in England and Wales mistakenly think that unmarried couples who cohabitate have a ‘common law marriage’ and enjoy the same rights as those couples who are legally married. Sadly, they are mistaken.
Unless legally wed, either through marriage or a civil partnership, your rights are very limited if you were to split. Under the current law, it is possible to live with someone for decades and have children together but for neither side to be responsible for the other financially if the relationship breaks down. Commonly, this will affect women most, who are more likely to have taken less well paid jobs or given up work altogether to look after the home and family, whilst their partner’s career takes off. If the relationship comes to an end, despite his increased wealth and success, partly supported by her sacrifices, he will have no legal obligation to provide for her, share his pension with her or divide assets other than those that already have her name on, such as the family home. Whilst it’s common for both parties’ names to be on the property, it’s not automatic, and if it’s all in his name, commonly she may be left with very little.
When I raise this difficult problem, people commonly tell me that they have a rock solid relationship and they don’t need any protection, but it’s not just about things going wrong between you. Problems can arise due to things beyond either of your control.
- If one cohabitating partner dies without leaving a will then the surviving partner will not automatically inherit anything, unless the property is owned jointly. A married partner would inherit all or some of the estate.
- An unmarried partner who stays at home to care for the children cannot make claims in their own right for property, maintenance or pension-sharing.
- Cohabitating partners have no access to their partner’s bank account if they die- whereas married couples may be allowed to withdraw the balance providing the amount is minimal.
- Cohabitating couples are not legally obliged to support each other financially, but divorcing couples have a legal duty to support each other.
Whether being a cohabiting couple is a good thing or a bad thing can depend on what side of the fence you are on. For example, an unmarried couple can separate without going to court, but married couples have a formal procedure to follow!
There are discussions about a change in the law to provide some protection for cohabiting couples, but such discussions can commonly take months if not years to come into law, if they ever make it that far. Until then, if any of this affects you, then you should find out what your rights are and how to protect yourself in the future.
Kleyman & Co Solicitors. The full service law firm. Helping you with common misunderstandings.