What are the legal rights of a common law wife or husband?

If you would like to know more about the legal rights of a common law wife or husband call  us on Taunton (01823) 354545 or send an email to us at [email protected]

The rise of cohabitation

There’s no doubt that couples living together without marrying represent the fastest growing type of family in the UK. In 2012 the Office for National Statistics recorded that the number of cohabitees had doubled since 1996 and the trend shows no sign of changing. With cohabitation becoming ever more common it’s perhaps surprising (and undoubtedly worrying) that there are still so many myths about the position of those in cohabiting relationships. We regularly receive enquiries from people who have split up with their partner and want help to enforce their “rights” as a “common law” wife or husband. In most instances the caller is shocked to learn that their legal position is much weaker than they assumed.

The legal rights of a common law wife or husband

The fundamental problem facing cohabitees is that there is actually no such thing as a ‘common law wife or husband’. It’s a myth that runs very deep and one that, bizarrely, is often perpetuated by forms and websites that give “common law wife/husband” as an option for “marital status”. There are figures suggesting that more than half of all adults in this country still believe that couples living together have at least some rights, if not the same rights, as those who are married. The view varies quite widely as to how long you have to live together before you acquire such rights, but there’s certainly an erroneous belief that they exist.

The common law myth

There is no duty of mutual support between cohabitees. If you move into your partner’s property, the fact that you live there doesn’t automatically give you any legal ownership of it. If you split up, your former partner has no duty to maintain you even if you have, with their agreement, given up work to care for the children you’ve had together. Your partner has a duty to maintain your children, but not you. Any claims in relation to property will be decided in accordance with property law which can be complex. If you have children together you may be able to obtain some limited capital support to enable them to be securely housed whilst they’re young, but the relief available to cohabitees is limited when compared to the potential claims available to married couples in relation to property, capital, support and pensions.

What can unmarried cohabitees do?

If you are a cohabitee and are concerned about your legal position then what can you do? Well, in relation to property your safest course is to arrange for any property to either be held legally in joint names or made subject to a Declaration of Trust, recording that you have a ‘beneficial interest’ in the property. You can also enter into a cohabitation agreement that sets out your respective positions very clearly. Come and talk to our family law team at Slee Blackwell about your position. It’s important when you are making major life decisions as part of a cohabiting couple that you know the implications for you if things don’t work out in the future.

For further guidance on the legal rights of a common law wife or husband call Taunton 01823 354545 or send an email to us at [email protected]

The legal rights of a common law wife or husband