The fact and fiction of co-habitation

Cases concerning the rights of co-habitees and common law spouses have been making the news lately. Family solicitor, Toni Thomas, of HilliersHRW separates the fact from the fiction

THE breakdown of any relationship can be a very difficult time for both parties, emotionally and financially, and often people are not fully aware of how the law impacts upon their relationship breakdown or what little rights they have as a co-habitee rather than as a husband or wife. Probably one of the biggest misconceptions in co-habiting couples is the belief that they are a 'common-law' husband or wife and that in being so they have acquired the same rights as if they had been married. This is fiction - there are no legal rights for so called common-law spouses. Couples may live together for many years, bring up a family together, contribute to what they believe to be the joint family resources only to find that when the relationship breaks down that they are not entitled to financial support from the other party or indeed, in some cases, to a claim in respect of what they consider to be the family home, which is often the case where the family home is owned in the sole name of only one party to the relationship. Having children together and caring for the home, carrying out painting and decorating and contributing towards general day-to-day living expenses will not entitle the non-owning party to a financial claim against the property. Co-habitees also have to be aware of the situation that arises if their partner dies without having made a will as they are not automatically entitled to receive any benefit from the estate of their deceased partner. Co-habitees lose out to married couples who divorce in relation to pensions as pension sharing orders can only be made by the court in matrimonial proceedings. Co-habitees can only benefit from pension funds in the event that a nomination is made by the pension holder and nominations can be changed once a relationship has broken down. The Law Commission has recently reported to the Government on the financial consequences of relationship breakdowns and it is anticipated that legislation is likely to be proposed that would allow co-habiting couples to acquire legal rights although it is not anticipated that co-habitees will acquire the same rights as married couples. Fact - Relatively few couples take legal advice prior to co-habitation or consider their future financial arrangements in the event of their relationship coming to an end, believing either that they will be able to sort matters out between themselves or that an agreement is a negative move. A co-habitation contract is a relatively straightforward and cost-effective way of avoiding protracted and often expensive litigation when a relationship breaks down. HilliersHRW advise on all aspects of family law at both their Stevenage and Bedford offices.

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