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A word of caution for cohabitees without a will

Non-married couples get a raw deal under English law when their relationship ends, regardless of how long they lived together.

As a family lawyer specialising in cases involving claims against estates under the Inheritance Act, I am regularly consulted by clients whose partners have recently died and who feel that they have not received a fair share of their loved one’s estate if anything at all.

Sometimes this is because the partner did not leave them anything but often it is that the deceased did not prepare a will. Without one, intestacy rules apply meaning that an unmarried partner is not entitled to receive anything. The estate instead passes to the deceased’s children or other relatives.

Unfortunately, some people still believe that they are common law spouses because they have lived together for a long period of time.  But the concept of a common law spouse does not exist in English law, except in some very unusual circumstances.

The bottom line is that if you are not married, you have less legal protection if your relationship ends through the death of one partner.

However, a recent High Court case has thrown the spotlight on claims brought by cohabitees against a late partner’s estate.

In Thompson v Raggott, the High Court ruled in favour of Joan Thompson’s claim for reasonable financial provision out of the estate of her late partner, Wynford Hodge.

Mr Hodge, worth £1.5 million, left nothing for Mrs Thompson or her four children. He felt that three of her children had taken advantage of him during his lifetime and instead left the estate to his friends – who were also tenants at one of his properties.

Mrs Thompson claimed she had been financially dependent on her late partner and had lived with him for approximately 42 years.

Following evidence from her GP, Mrs Thompson made it clear that she was in fact well enough to live at home alone, with an appropriate care package. Her claim was also supported by the fact that one of Mr Hodge’s properties had been purchased for the couple to move into after retirement.

The court decided to provide an outright transfer of the property to Mrs Thompson, rather than holding it on trust with a lifetime interest.

It is worth bearing in mind that most of the estate passed to Mr Hodge’s friends as per his will.  However, it is highly likely that Mrs Thompson would have received significantly more financial provision if she had been Mr Hodge’s widow rather than his surviving cohabitee as the law states that a widow or widower should receive a higher level of financial provision from an estate than a surviving cohabitee.

Cohabitees claims under Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 are a complex area of family law and it is important you seek specialist advice if you think you have a claim over a former partner’s estate.

You can get in touch with me below or email [email protected]

Theo Hoppen was a Senior Solicitor in our Harrogate office. He advises on all aspects of family law with a specialism in representing clients in relation to claims against estates under the Inheritance Act.

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