But I’m his common law wife!

This is a phrase that we family lawyers hear on a regular basis. It surprises us how many people believe that common law marriage is a genuine legal principle. There is in fact, no such thing as a common law husband or wife in England or Wales.

This misconception would not be too concerning were it not for the fact that the current law is so unforgiving for unmarried couples living together. Indeed, what many do not realise is that when you cohabit with your partner (irrespective of how long that cohabitation may be), you have no legal right to claim a share of their pension(s), capital or income. This includes relationships where one party is financially stronger than the other.

That said, cohabiting couples may well be able to claim a share of a property which they have lived in together but, often, it is necessary to rely on written documentation confirming how the property is owned or to be able to prove that the person claiming a share has made a financial contribution towards its purchase or towards its improvement (such as an extension or similar). Contributions towards the mortgage alone will not be sufficient. In fact, proving you have an interest in property where there is no written agreement about ownership or where no specific financial contributions have been made is likely to be very difficult indeed.

There are exceptions to this where, for example, the Court will find that a financial interest has arisen through the parties’ course of dealings. However, these cases are often time-consuming and expensive meaning that not everyone can afford to bring such a claim to the Court’s attention. Furthermore, whilst the Court does sometimes find that a party has acquired an interest in property based on conduct alone, they also regularly find that no financial interest exists at all. This means that this type of litigation can be risky.

Another potentially alarming aspect of the law surrounding cohabitants is as a result of the lack of any right to share in the income or wealth of the other partner. For example, you may have a couple who have lived together for a long time with one being the main breadwinner and supporting the other financially so that they do not need to work or, perhaps, do not have to work full time. However, if this couple are unmarried, the partner with the higher income has no legal duty to support the other partner financially, save for if they have children together (and even then the support is often limited). So, for anyone who has made long term plans based on their cohabiting relationship continuing with the benefit of their partner’s wealth, a breakdown of that relationship could be devastating and lead to the potential loss of income, access to capital and pension assets.

If you find yourself in a position similar to the above, then we would urge you to take legal advice from a family solicitor at the earliest opportunity in order to consider your options. It may be that your legal claims are limited but, equally, you may have options which could help protect your financial future following a breakdown of a relationship.

Also, for anyone considering cohabiting for the first time, or perhaps already in a cohabiting relationship, you may wish to consider entering into a cohabitation agreement, a document which sets out who owns what and in what proportion. It will also enable you to divide your property, its contents, personal belongings, savings and other assets by agreement, should the relationship break down.

If you would like to discuss this issue or any other family related matter, then please contact a member of our team, by email office@cartmell-solicitors.co.uk or telephone on 01494 870075 (Chalfont St Giles) or 01296 747151 (Stone nr Aylesbury) to make an initial 30-minute appointment, at no charge.