Cohabitation

Increasing numbers of people in the UK choose to live together as a family unit without getting married. Although many of these couples cohabit (ie live together) this doesn't create similar or same rights as those who are married and live together. Generally speaking you will have fewer rights as cohabiting couples as opposed to married couples.

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Does cohabitation provide any legal rights similar to marriage?

Unmarried partners who live together, even for many years, do not acquire the legal rights afforded to married couples. A ‘common law marriage’ has no legal validity or recognition in the UK. If a cohabiting couple decides to split up or if one cohabitee dies, and they fail to put into place plans for such events, there may be significant problems. There are certain ways to increase security of cohabiting couples, such as creating a cohabitation agreement and making a will.

What is a cohabitation agreement?

Cohabitation agreements can set out the rights and obligations of each partner towards each other. Creating an agreement can cover key aspects of your relationship and personal life and can cover issues such as:

  • financial arrangements
  • setting out which assets belong to each individual before they move in together
  • taking steps to get parental responsibility for any children
  • reviewing wills and creating lasting power of attorneys
  • specifying how they will split up any shared assets or debts which are acquired during the course of their relationship

It is a way to clarify intentions from the outset and avoid disagreements in the case of a relationship breakdown. Although cohabitation agreements are not legally binding, they can serve as evidence of intentions if a case goes to court.

What are your legal rights to a property when cohabiting?

Whether you move into your partner’s home, they move in with you, or you find a new place together, it’s important that you both take certain precautionary measures to avoid being left without a home in the event the relationship comes to an end. Using a declaration of trust allows you to record equity shares in a property if you are purchasing a house together. As joint owners you both have equal rights to stay in the home.

If you or your partner move into a house already owned by one cohabitee, the other partner may be able to claim a beneficial interest in the property, if they contribute to home improvements or the mortgage.

If you are renting, ensure that both names are on the tenancy agreement. Cohabitees who are not married will generally only have rights to a property if both their names are recorded in formal documentation; even if you have rented somewhere together for years, you will only be entitled to stay in the property if you are a named tenant. If you are the unmarried partner of a sole tenant, you may want to convert the existing sole tenancy into a joint tenancy if the sole tenant and the landlord agree.

Why should cohabitees consider making a will?

Unlike married couples, in the absence of a will cohabitants won't automatically inherit any of their partner’s assets in the event of their death. Instead, the distribution of the deceased’s estate will be determined according to the rules of intestacy - and this can mean that the surviving partner will not be entitled to anything at all. Therefore, it’s particularly important for people living together as a family without the sanction of marriage to ensure they both make a will.

Does cohabitation affect child arrangements upon separation?

Only those with parental responsibility can make important decisions about a child's upbringing and welfare. The birth mother will automatically have parental responsibility for the child. This means that they have a duty to protect and maintain the child and provide them with a home, but it also covers situations relating to decisions about schooling or medical treatment.

If a cohabiting couple separate who aren't married, decisions about who the children should live with and what contact rights the other parent should have are based on the child's best interests. You can make informal arrangements for the amount of contact the other parent can have with their child, or if that isn't possible, they can apply for a child arrangement order from the court, who will decide based on the interests of the child.

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