There are now 3.3 million cohabiting couples in the UK – that’s one family in five, making this the fastest growing family type. Whilst there may be many reasons couples choose not to marry, most don’t realise they can be leaving themselves in a precarious situation. Many people in such a situation should consider protecting themselves and awareness of this is currently being raised during Resolution’s Cohabitation Awareness Week.
There are many myths surrounding cohabitation, including that of “common law spouses”. Many people mistakenly believe that if couples live together for long enough, or have children together, they acquire rights or develop legal responsibility to support each other financially. This is a widespread misconception. In only very limited circumstances can a court deal with finances or property should an unmarried couple separate, and that excludes provision of income.
Couples who have children should note that whilst unmarried parents will still have a financial obligation to their children, there are no equivalent responsibilities for a partner. For example, a mother who gave up work or reduced her hours to raise children would not be entitled to financial support from their partner if they were unmarried before separation. This situation can often leave that person with no financial security, no home and no access to savings or pensions.
It is important that unmarried couples understand their rights and seek appropriate legal advice. If you are currently cohabiting, or considering doing so, here are some points for you and your partner to consider to protect yourselves in case your relationship breaks down, or one of you dies.
Have a declaration of trust drawn up
All too often, the legal title of a property confirming either sole or joint ownership does not go far enough to explain your and your partner’s intentions regarding who owns what share of the property, even when it is intended to be an equal share.
A declaration of trust is a legal document that makes clear the parties’ interests in the property and can be invaluable should you split up from your partner, as it provides clear evidence of your intentions.
It is also useful if you and your partner are not contributing to the purchase or upkeep of the property in equal shares, or if parents or family are assisting with the deposit, something which is increasingly common.
Consider a co-habitation agreement
While a declaration of trust can set out your intentions regarding ownership, you may also wish to enter into a co-habitation agreement to record what you and your partner have agreed regarding your arrangements for living together.
These arrangements can include issues that would not be covered by a declaration of trust, including payment of the mortgage and other outgoings, non-monetary contributions, the operation of bank accounts, the nomination of pension death benefits, the ownership of house contents, and car purchases and running expenses.
They can be valuable documents for clarifying intentions during a relationship if it later breaks down.
Draw up a will
It is vital you have a valid will in place if you are living together, as cohabitees do not automatically have an entitlement to their partner’s estate if they die without one. A solicitor can advise you on how to draw one up that will set out your wishes. You should also consider taking out life insurance.
These are all fairly simply but essential protective measures for anyone either in a cohabiting relationship or considering one.
Careful thought should also be given as to how things would change if you later decide to get married or enter into a civil partnership after all, or if you and your partner end up having a child together.