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The limited rights of unmarried couples living together

PUBLISHED: 11:06 18 January 2018 | UPDATED: 11:06 18 January 2018

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto


The South East of England is home to more cohabiting couples than any other region of the UK as a greater number of people chose to live together without marrying

Many people are shocked when they learn that, no matter how long they have lived together, there is no such thing as a “common law husband or wife” and that legally they may have very limited rights. 


When a marriage ends, consideration is given to all the family’s assets and how they should be divided between the spouses. When an unmarried couple’s relationship ends, there is no such division of the assets.

If the couple live in a house owned by one or both of them, consideration may have to be given to the ownership of the property. The situation is governed by the law of property ownership and an individual will not have a claim just because they lived there or have been in a relationship with the owner. If the property is owned in one person’s name, the initial presumption is that it is theirs alone. It may be possible to challenge this but this can be complex and legal disputes can be expensive. If the property is jointly owned, there may be arguments about the share to which each is entitled. 

Financial support

One partner may have given up their career in order to care for the children and to support the other in furthering their own career. However, if the relationship ends, an unmarried person will have no claim against the other for maintenance or other financial provision for themselves. Even asking for help with any children’s needs may differ compared to a married person.

Many people don’t realise this and assume that they will be provided for if the relationship ends, only to find out too late that this is often not the case.

There are things a couple can do to ensure that, in the unhappy event of their relationship breaking down, they both know where they stand and can take steps avoid costly legal battles further down the line. This could include:

• Taking early legal advice — ideally before moving in together

• Entering into a Cohabitation Agreement

• Agreeing a Declaration of Trust in relation to the ownership of property

• Seeking advice if intentions regarding the ownership of the property change at any time so that this can be properly recorded

It may not be the easiest or most cheerful topic to discuss with your partner but addressing these issues now can save financial expense, stress and additional upset at what is likely to be an already difficult time later on. 

Top tips

• Discuss these issues with your partner early in the relationship

• Take legal advice sooner rather than later

Felicity Chapman is a Senior Associate in the Family Law team at Charles Russell Speechlys in our Guildford office. If you want to contact Felicity, email her at or call 01483 252502.

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