So what happens when your relationship with your common-law partner breaks down?
For married couples whose relationship breaks down, there are specifically designed laws which deal with the break-up of their marriage, often referred to as ‘divorce law’.
In England and Wales, there are no specific laws which deal with the breakdown of an unmarried couple’s relationship. This means that if there’s a dispute over, for example, the family home, other, often highly complicated, areas of law will govern what happens next. The main problem lies in the fact that these laws were not specifically devised to deal with disputes which can result from a couple deciding to go their separate ways.
The common-law partner myth is so dangerous because it means that people leave themselves vulnerable financially, not realising that there is no such thing as common-law partner rights.
Unmarried people in a relationship who live together – known as cohabitees – are sometimes referred to as being a common-law partner. Again, it is worth reiterating, that the label ‘common-law partner’ does not carry with it any marriage-like legal rights.
A cohabitation agreement – also called a living together agreement – is a way of setting out the rights and obligations each person has towards the other.
Although not suitable for all couples (as always, legal advice for your circumstances is essential), a cohabitation agreement could help to provide some security as to what should happen, should the relationship ever break down.
Common-law partners do not have a right to access money in the other partner’s bank account. Normally, any money in joint accounts is shared – but be aware that this isn’t always the case.
With regards to debt, each common-law partner is liable for debts in their own name. For debts that are in both names, both people are fully liable for the whole debt.
Property is the area that can often cause the biggest disputes following the breakdown of a common-law partner relationship. For example, as we touched on above , if one common-law partner moves into the other common-law partner’s house (owned 100% by partner 2), then contributes to the mortgage for many years until the relationship breaks down, the partner who moved in normally has no legal right to the property. However, in some instances, the non-owning common-law partner may be entitled to some money when the property is sold, or could even obtain the right to live in the property.
For some couples, a cohabitation agreement may be able to prevent disputes from arising in the future.
Crucially, it is important to be aware that ‘common-law partner’ is just another way of saying an unmarried partner. If you have a common-law partner, you do not have the same legal rights as a married couple, should your relationship break down. What’s more, the laws that may come into play to resolve any dispute, are not specifically designed for relationship splits and can result in highly unpredictable outcomes.
As specialist divorce solicitors, people often come to us under the impression that they are in a common-law marriage with their partner and have gained common-law marriage legal rights to match.
In this article, we expose the truth regarding the mythical common-law marriage and explain why relying on the common-law marriage when it comes to your legal rights, is a mistake.
In England and Wales, there is no such thing as a common-law marriage. It does not exist.
If you are not married, no matter how long you live with your partner, you will never enter into a common-law marriage. Nor will you acquire the same legal rights as a married couple, should your relationship ever break down.
The widely-held belief in the existence of common-law marriage means that many people do not take the necessary steps to protect themselves financially, should their relationship ever come to an end.
Up until relatively recently, living with someone that you were in a relationship with was practically unheard of. It is only in the last few decades that cohabiting with a partner before getting married (or instead of) has become much more commonplace.
With the change in the way society viewed living together outside of marriage, so the common-law marriage myth was born. Maybe the common-law marriage myth came about when this form of cohabitation was only just beginning to be accepted, in order to make a relationship seem more ‘legitimate’. Maybe, in recent years, it’s because many people think that this arguably more modern way of looking at a relationship, just seems to make sense.
Either way, common-law marriage is a myth which seems to be going nowhere; 46% of people questioned in a recent survey in England and Wales, believed that unmarried cohabiting couples are in a common-law marriage.
There are specific laws which deal with divorce and separation of a married couple. The same laws do not exist for unmarried couples.
For those cohabiting couples whose relationship breaks down, various different, often highly complex, property laws could come into play, none of which have been designed with cohabiting couples in mind.
Disputes over property following the breakdown of a relationship where a couple are not married, highlight the dangers of the common-law marriage myth.
Quite simply, the answer is no. There is no common-law marriage spousal support or maintenance. This type of maintenance is reserved exclusively for married couples.
If you are not married to your partner, you cannot apply for spousal maintenance following the breakdown of your relationship.
Common-law marriage does not exist in England and Wales. No matter how long you are with your partner, if you are not married, you will not acquire the same legal rights as a married couple, should your relationship break down.
Depending on your circumstances, it may be a good idea to enter into a cohabitation agreement. Always seek legal advice from a specialist solicitor, such as Austin Kemp, before entering into an agreement of this kind.
Our expert family law solicitors can help you with a range of legal issues relating to divorce, including:
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