We live in a much freer world than that inhabited by our grandparents and great-grandparents, and no longer feel the need to justify our romantic relationships with certificates, ceremonies or rings. We are allowed to pursue happiness without the social restrictions of old. This is very liberating – but it can cause significant problems further down the line.
Why? Simply because family law in England and Wales ascribes no special status to living together: there is no such thing as a common law spouse. As far as the law is concerned, a cohabiting couple are simply two individuals living together under the same roof, and so most of the legal rights that come with marriage will not be available to them. Unmarried partners have no automatic right to maintenance or financial support, nor any right to inherit property or pensions if their partner passes away after years together. Older people can be left in difficult circumstances, especially if they are no longer working and they had no idea of their true legal status.
The best way to avoid this kind of shock is to prepare beforehand. Perhaps the simplest and most comprehensive step a cohabiting couple can take is to simply get married. But if, for whatever reason, that is out of the question, the next best thing would be to make provision for your partner in your will. A formal declaration there that they should receive the house or a particular sum of money in the event of your death will be legally watertight.
Younger couples, meanwhile, may prefer a cohabitation agreement. As the name suggests, this a formal agreement between you and your partner setting out how you would divide your assets if you ever split up and whether or not one spouse would support the other, with the period of time and the sums involved both specified. A cohabitation agreement provides a degree of certainty – and a family solicitor can help ensure yours is comprehensive and effective. Drafting an agreement does require mature communication and a willingness to engage with the idea that your relationship might not last.
But what if it’s all too late? Your partner died without providing for you in their will and now you find yourself facing the loss of your home or other difficult financial circumstances. There is one other option in that situation: a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. This allows you to argue in court that your late partner should have made “reasonable provision” for you even if they did not. Such claims can succeed if you have a good case: some claimants have won the right to their former partner’s home or other financial support.
If you are not married to your partner, discuss the best ways to protect your interests with a family lawyer.