Protecting yourself legally as an unmarried couple

On behalf of Attwaters Jameson Hill posted in Family Law on Tuesday, January 2nd, 2024

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of marriages taking place in England and Wales decreased by 36.6% in the 30 years to 2019. Firstly, there is simply less societal pressure to get married these days. People are also less willing to shell out thousands of pounds for a big white wedding, preferring to save up their money for a deposit on a home or simply to enjoy a better standard of living. Others are waiting until later in life to get married, while others are divorced and don’t wish to marry again.

Whilst we at Attwaters Jameson Hill believe that there is absolutely no need to get married if you don’t want to, we also think it is important to raise awareness of the legal situation unmarried couples face. Contrary to popular belief, ‘common law’ marriage – i.e., living together and presenting to society as a married couple without an official marriage certificate – is not a legally recognised marital status in England and Wales.

Married vs. unmarried – your rights

When you marry in England and Wales, this gives you certain rights when it comes to your spouse’s finances, property and other assets. If you are unmarried, however:

  • You will not automatically inherit your partner’s estate if they die without leaving a Will
  • You can’t claim ownership of your partner’s property if you split up – unless you can prove to a court that you have a ‘beneficial interest’ in the property
  • You can separate without any formal legal proceedings
  • You won’t have the right to a share in your partner’s assets if you split up
  • You won’t be entitled to spousal maintenance, but you may be entitled to child support if you share children together
  • The father only has parental responsibility for your children together if he is named on the birth certificate.

All in all, the legal situation for unmarried couples is precarious. Even if you have been together for many years and are ‘married’ in all but name, there is little legal recognition of your shared life together. Although there is some scope for claiming a share in your partner’s inheritance or property through the courts, this can be a long and arduous process and there is no guarantee of a positive outcome.

The answer? A living together agreement.

Living Together Agreements

A Living Together Agreement (or Cohabitation Agreement) is a legally binding document which allows an unmarried couple to set out their financial rights and responsibilities towards one another. It can include:

  • Who owns the property you live in
  • If you have bought a home together, what deposit you both paid
  • The share of the rent/mortgage and bills you will each pay
  • The percentage of the property you are each entitled to if your relationship ends
  • How your assets will be divided if you were to split up
  • Who is responsible for any debts
  • Who you want your next of kin to be
  • Any insurance policies such as a life insurance policy.

This document is only legally binding if it is properly written and executed as a deed. We’d therefore strongly recommend that you draw up your Living Together Agreement in the presence of a solicitor. As your circumstances change, we’d also recommend reviewing your Agreement regularly to ensure it still reflects your financial situation and wishes.

Making a Will

As we have explored, unmarried couples have no automatic right to inherit their partner’s estate if one of them passes away without a Will. This is also known as dying intestate. Sadly, many surviving partners miss out on what they feel they are rightfully entitled to simply because the deceased just assumed that they would inherit their money and property.

However, intestacy laws are very strict and an unmarried person’s estate will instead go to children, grandchildren, parents or even more distant relatives such as aunts, uncles and cousins.

By making a Will and naming your partner as your beneficiary, you can avoid the heartache and conflict your partner could face if you were to pass away unexpectedly.

Again, a Will must be properly executed in order to be legally binding and to avoid contentious probate claims. We’d therefore highly recommend that you consult a solicitor to ensure your Will is properly drafted, signed and witnessed.

Here to support modern couples

At Attwaters Jameson Hill, we understand that the law is woefully outdated when it comes to modern couples and families. As a full-service law firm, we work across departments to ensure that our clients are furnished with legal protections they need to enjoy life with full peace of mind.

If you are cohabiting with your partner and would like to put protection in place, please do get in touch on 0330 221 8855 or email enquiries@attwaters.co.uk.

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