More and more unmarried couples are buying a home together before marriage, or without any plans to marry, but few are aware of the steps they should be taking to protect themselves if the relationship fails.

There is a myth that a couple become “common law” husband and wife after living together for a period of time and therefore acquire legal rights. There is no such thing in law and the ending of a cohabiting relationship can often give at least one party a nasty shock about the vulnerable position they are left in.

Rights for unmarried couples 

Marriage gives both parties certain legal rights that don’t apply to cohabiting couples. As the law stands at the moment, unmarried couples don’t automatically inherit their partner’s estate when they die, for example. They cannot claim for spousal maintenance and there can be all sorts of issues involved in determining the future of shared property and assets after separation or death.

Cohabitation and buying a house

Married couples share their assets when they separate but this is not the case when unmarried couples separate. Ownership will determine how property and belongings are divided on separation. If one party owned something before cohabiting, that person will still own it after separation. If the house was owned by one partner and the other moved in later, the property will still belong to its original owner even if the couple have lived in it as a family home for many years and the non-owner may have no financial interest.  However, the other may still have some kind of interest in the property.

If a couple decide to buy a property together, however, and that property is owned in joint names, the property will legally belong to them both and should be divided between them if the relationship ends.

There are a number of pitfalls that couples should be aware of and certain steps that should be taken to ensure one party doesn’t miss out on a proportion of their share.

At Harrogate Family Law we offer legal advice to couples who are thinking of living together. We can also draw up a cohabitation agreement which is a contract that registers the intentions of both parties in relation to how their property will be shared if they split up. Things that are often discussed when drawing up such agreement might include purchase price, mortgage payments, contributions to bills, upkeep, loans or gifts from family members who are helping out with the purchase and how to register ownership of the property.

If you and your partner are thinking of buying a home together we would urge you to seek legal advice beforehand. To talk to one of our team about cohabitation agreements call Harrogate Family Law on 01423 594 680

Andrew Meehan is an experienced family lawyer specialising in complex divorces involving significant or hidden assets, as well as cases involving children.

He is recommended for family law by both Chambers 2018 (York, Hull and surrounding regions) and the Legal 500 2017 (Leeds/West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire region).

Everyone’s circumstances are different and this article is provided by way of general information only and must not be replied upon.  If you require legal advice on a family law issue, please feel free to contact us by emailing