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Tales and myths of a common-law marriage

What are the myths of a common-law marriage?

Nearly half of people in England and Wales believe that unmarried couples living together have the same rights and obligations as couples who are legally married or who have entered into a civil partnership.

However, this could not be further from the truth.

This is the myth of common-law marriage.

Research just undertaken by the University of Exeter and the National Centre for Social Research, shows that 46% of those asked, believe that unmarried couples living together (cohabiting couples) were part of a common-law marriage and, as a result, had equal protection to married couples in the event of their relationship breaking down.

Cohabitation does not provide any legal status to a couple living together.

At the same time, cohabiting couples now account for the fastest-growing household in England and Wales.  The number of opposite sex cohabiting couple families with dependent children has almost doubled in the last decade and nearly 50% of children are born to parents who are not married.

The difference between cohabiting couples and couples who are married or in a civil partnership could not be more significant.

In the event of a couple living together but not married or in a civil partnership, separating, the result is often, according to the University of Exeter, severe financial hardship for the more vulnerable financially weaker party.

For example, there is no right to claim maintenance, there is no ability to share pensions and there is no ability to share property unless that property is jointly owned.

The University of Exeter concludes by saying “it is absolutely critical that we raise awareness of the difference between cohabitation, civil partnership and marriage and any differences and rights that come with each.”

This is not a new issue.

Previous governments have been advised by the Law Commission, an independent body which advises governments on the need for law reform, that they needed to act.  The Law Commission even drafted a Bill to go before parliament.  Some limited protection was put in place in Scotland but not in England and Wales.

The need for reform and change could not be more urgent.

In the meantime, we can offer some practical advice.

If you are thinking of living with someone and not getting married, or if you already are living with someone, consider entering into a “living together agreement” and also consider whether any documents should be drawn up in relation to any property which you may own, for example setting out your rights in relation to that property, when it could be sold and what happens on sale.

If, on the other hand, you are thinking of separating from your partner, or already have, don’t give up.  If you have children, there are certainly ways of obtaining financial support for them, including the provision of a home, and it may be that even if the property is in the name of your partner, you may still have certain rights in relation to it.

At Stowe we have a number of solicitors, including myself, who specialise in cohabitation, please do contact us at the details below.

Get in touch

If you would like any advice on the myths of a common-law marriage, you can find further articles here or please do contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist cohabitation lawyers here. 

This article was published earlier and has been updated. 

Graham was based at the firm's London family law office. His career as a family law specialist has spanned three decades. He is an experienced advocate, mediator and arbitrator who has worked in all areas of family law.

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  1. bryan law says:

    I am confused at the various rules governing inheritance tax and during my recent research my previous conceptions were incorrect
    I was always under the impression that couples like myself and my partner were in a civil partnership having been together now for 35 years. I am male and partner is female.
    I now understand that a civil partnership is only for same sex partnership.
    Do we have to get married to be able to benefit from inheritance tax exemptions for one of us to use the others allowance when one of us passes away.
    Would a “living together agreement” give us the same Inheritance tax benefits as married couples
    Our property is in both names but we share bills and have different bank accounts
    I am retired and 71 yrs old and my Civil Service pension department has already accepted my partners name in order that she should receive part of my pension should I pass away first. Surely if this is legal then my partner is recognised as a legal benefactor
    I would appreciate your response – especially if you know a way that we can I both benefit in regard to Inheritance tax like married couples.
    thank you.

    • Kate Nestor says:

      Thank you for your enquiry. I have passed your details to our Client Care Team who will be able to put you in touch with a lawyer who can help. Regards,

  2. Spiro Ozer says:

    The author assumes that people should be forced to share their assets with someone with whom they cohabit or have cohabited. This opinion is far from universally held, but as usual any other viewpoint is completely ignored.

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