Contrary to what many people believe, there is no such thing as a ‘common law marriage’ in the UK. No matter how long a couple have been living together, or whether they have children, they do not have the same rights or protections as couples who are married or in a civil partnership. This can be particularly devastating if one half of a couple dies without a Will or with a Will that is out-of-date.
Unmarried couples don’t have the same rights as married couples
There is a common assumption that, after a certain length of time, unmarried couples acquire the same rights as married couples. This relationship status is often referred to as ‘common law marriage’. However, there is actually no such legal status in the UK.
The laws on how finances should be divided up following the breakdown of a relationship only apply if you are married. Similarly, the automatic rights of a husband or wife to inherit the estate when their spouse dies do not apply to people who are living together.
With marriages at their lowest level since the 1970s, more and more co-habiting couples are relying on the myth of common law marriage; leaving themselves unprotected in the event that one partner dies.
Your rights if your partner dies
If your partner dies and there is no Will, unless you were married or in a civil partnership, you have no automatic entitlement to inherit anything from them. This can include the family home, if owned in their sole name or owned by both of you as tenants in common. The reality of this position can come as a devastating blow at the very worst of times.
Without a Will stating that you are your partner’s beneficiary, you would have to make an application to court for provision from the estate as a dependent. Aside from the emotional stress and uncertainty of the situation, the process of applying to the courts can be drawn out and costly.
Even if you make a successful claim on your partner’s estate, if there are other beneficiaries, you may only receive a limited share of the estate.
Protection and peace of mind for unmarried couples
RfM Legal Services Client Relationship Manager, Sharon Rigden, has met many co-habiting couples who believed they would automatically be the legal beneficiary of their partner’s estate. “I’ve been involved with a number of cases where couples assumed they were ‘common law’ spouses and, as such, would be treated in the same way as married couples or civil partners. Clients are always shocked to learn that the only way to ensure that property, money and assets are passed on to the other partner is by making a Will.
“Without the Will, the estate will pass on to the next of kin, which is your closest family member. The reality of this is that a mother, an estranged brother – even a distant cousin – could be next in line to inherit the estate ahead of the bereaved partner.
“The ONLY way to ensure that your partner will inherit the family home and other assets is to make a Will.”
What happens if you own property in joint names?
“You would assume that, were one partner to die, the other partner would automatically become sole owner of the property. However, it is your legal status as owners that determines what happens to the property,” explains Sharon.
“For example, if you own your home as ‘joint tenants’, full ownership of the property automatically passes on to the remaining partner. If your status is ‘tenants in common’, each partner’s share would be dealt with under the terms of any Will. If there are children from the relationship and you want them to pass the property on to them, you will need to consider the best way to structure your affairs to ensure that happens.”
Arrange a free consultation to discuss making a Will
We offer clients a free consultation to discuss your circumstances and make recommendations for the best way to structure your Will. You can also use the time to discuss putting assets into Trust or making Lasting Powers of Attorney.
Your free consultation will be a relaxed, informal session at a time to suit you. Due to the current restrictions, we are providing all our consultations remotely via the telephone or video call on Skype or Zoom. Please be reassured that you are under no obligation to take any action based on Sharon’s recommendations.