It is unfortunate but true that, contrary to popular misconception, the fact that a couple have lived together for a number of years does not of itself give any financial rights in the event that that relationship subsequently breaks down. "Common-law" spouses do not exist under English law. Indeed, research has shown that at no time was such a relationship recognised under English law.
Legal rights for heterosexual couples only flow from marriage whilst for same sex couples they only flow from a registered civil partnership.
This will no doubt be of great concern to many couples living together without being married/having entered into a registered civil partnership. Indeed, data from The Office for National Statistics indicates that living together is the fastest-growing type of family in the UK, the official figures suggesting that the number of people who cohabit has doubled to 2.9 million since 1996. This includes both heterosexual partners and same-sex couples who have not had a civil partnership ceremony. The same source indicates that there are 12.2 million married couples, down 457,000 over the same period.
So what can a cohabiting couple do to protect themselves in the event that they do split up? Firstly, they should clearly record in writing their respective interests in any property that they jointly purchase. In addition, they should record all financial contributions that either of them makes towards the purchase, for example in respect of the deposit, legal costs and Stamp Duty Land Tax and the purpose of the acquisition.
Legal advice should also be sought regarding the best way in which to purchase the property. There are two options, neither of which (despite the terminology) has anything to do with renting, namely joint tenants or tenants in common. Generally speaking, married couples/civil partners will purchase as joint tenants whilst other couples will purchase as tenants in common. When a joint tenant dies, the survivor automatically inherits the other's share. However, each joint tenant owns a specific share of the property. If one tenant in common dies, his/her share in the property will pass according to the terms of their will if there is one and the intestacy provisions if there is not.
Serious consideration should also be given to entering into cohabitation or "living-together" agreement. This can detail whatever the parties consider it should contain but will typically record the interests of the respective parties in the property, detail responsibility for the payment of mortgage instalments, insurance premiums, utility bills and other items of household expenditure and will make it clear whether such contributions give rise to an interest in a property owned in the sole name of one of the couple.
Such an agreement may also cover the ownership of a motor vehicle, the furniture and other contents of the property, bank and building society accounts, responsibility for debts and the consequences of separation, including, for example, an option for one party to buy out the other's interest.
For further information regarding any matters arising from this article, please telephone
Martin Chambers of Bakerlaw on 01252 733770 or email him (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Martin Chambers offers initial advice in respect of many aspects of family law on a totally free of charge and no obligation basis.
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