Warning for unmarried couples over common law marriage myth

As the trend for couples to live together without marrying continues to rise, efforts are underway to make them aware that common law marriage is a myth and they are not automatically entitled to the level of legal protection that applies to married couples.

There is still a misconception that couples who share their home and finances have certain rights, whether they are married or not. This assumption is unfortunately resulting in some people being left homeless and facing financial hardship if their relationship breaks down.

When to seek advice

Ideally, couples should seek legal advice when they first move in together but it can be done later, even when they have been living under the same roof for many years and perhaps have a family together. In fact, those who are in an established relationship like this, where assets and parental responsibilities are closely interwoven, are strongly urged to take action to protect themselves.

It is simply not true that if you have lived together for a long time and have a family together you are protected under “common law marriage” and are therefore more likely to be viewed by the courts as if you were a married couple. When married couples divorce, their assets are divided fairly. When cohabitees separate they have no automatic legal rights. They are not entitled to claim financial support from their partner and they have no right to a share of their pension. As far as the family home is concerned, for married couples this is dealt with under family law and is considered as part of the joint assets whereas for unmarried couples it is dealt with under property law. That leaves people vulnerable if they have moved into a property owned by their partner or their partner’s family.

How to protect yourself

The ideal time to take action is when you first move in together. It may not be the most romantic of conversations, but it’s an important one to have. This is when you can decide how the property will be owned and how bills will be shared.

We can help you draw up a cohabitation agreement that sets out how property and assets will be divided if you split up and whether you would like to put in place any provision for future financial support. It is important to remember that you will not automatically inherit property or other assets if one of you dies and it is therefore advisable to make wills.

As family law specialists, we can help you make the right decisions now to ensure you and your family are fully protected if your relationship breaks down in the future. Everybody’s personal circumstances are different and the arrangements made by one couple may not suit another. Our experience allows us to spot any potential pitfalls and set measures in place that will provide you with the best possible financial arrangement should you end up living apart.

What to do if your relationship is ending

 The law is complex and it is recommended that you seek advice from a lawyer who specialises in advising cohabitees.  A specialist lawyer will be able to advise on all of the options available to you because these vary from the obvious to the obscure.

Read Carol Jessop’s interview on this subject on Stray FM.


Andrew Meehan is individually recommended for family law by both Chambers UK and the Legal 500. He is also a Resolution accredited specialist solicitor for divorce cases involving complex financial and property matters.

This article has been prepared with the aim of providing general information only and does not constitute legal advice in relation to any particular situation. While we aim to ensure that the information is correct at the date on which it is added to the website, the legal position can change frequently, and content will not always be updated following any relevant changes. In addition, everyone’s circumstances are different and this article is provided by way of general information only and must not be relied upon. If you require legal advice on a family law issue, please feel free to contact us by emailing enquiries@harrogatefamilylaw.co.uk. Harrogate Family Law accepts no liability whatsoever in contract, tort or otherwise for any loss or damage caused by or arising directly or indirectly in connection with any use or reliance on the contents of any part of our website, except to the extent that such liability cannot be excluded by law.

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