Bustling the common law myth

Unmarried couples have been warned there is no such thing as a common-law spouse and that they need to protect themselves and their interests.

Nadia Davis, who leads the Family law team at Martin-Kaye Solicitors, in Telford, said there were many myths around the circumstances of cohabiting couples, but many, if not all, were simply untrue.

“It’s a common belief that after two years living together, your partner becomes your common law spouse and is entitled to half of everything you own.

“But in fact, no such legal status currently exists – it did centuries ago, but it has long since disappeared.”

Mrs Davis said that cohabiting did not give a couple any form of marital or joint status, and did not give them the same rights as a married couple.

“As far as the law is concerned, the two partners are separate individuals in a house and it makes no difference how long they’ve been together or whether they have children.

“They are not entitled to any of the other person’s assets including money, shares or property at any point, and this status comes as a complete surprise to some couples who are totally unaware of their position.”

Mrs Davis said if a cohabiting couple decided to separate, their status could actually be helpful.

“Each partner will keep any assets owned in their sole name such as cash in the bank or shares, and any jointly-owned assets must be divided.

“There are no rights to claim maintenance – even if one of the partners always stayed at home while the other worked – but maintenance may be payable for any children the couple have together.”

But Mrs Davis said if one of the partners died, a lack of rights could cause serious issues if no will had been left to leave their assets to the other partner.

“There was a case recently where a couple had lived in a house that they owned together for 18 years – but while the man was separated from his wife, he had never divorced and he didn’t leave a will.

“So when he died suddenly his share in the house automatically passed to his estranged wife – not an ideal situation for his partner who faced a great deal of costly and time-consuming legal wrangling before the courts ruled in her favour.

“Don’t assume that living together gives you all the rights bestowed on married couples – your status needs formalising if you want to protect your partner in the future.”

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