In this new series of short posts, we debunk some of the more common myths and urban legends surrounding Family Law. Stay tuned for further updates!
Myth 1: My partner and I have a common law marriage
There is no such thing as a common law marriage in England and Wales. The term is often used to refer to unmarried couples who live together as man and wife, but who have not undergone a valid marriage ceremony. The danger with using this term is that many can be led to believe it infers some sort of legal right or obligation upon the cohabiting couple, similar to those legal rights enjoyed by married couples. Unfortunately, it doesn’t and upon the breakdown of the relationship the court has no power to redistribute assets between the separating couple. This can cause real difficulties if one partner gave up work to look after any children and now finds that they have no income and no right to any of the assets built up during the relationship.
There are ways to avoid this situation arising. The first and most obvious is to enter into a valid marriage, but this is not the right option for everyone. Cohabitation agreements, which regulate the financial arrangements between a couple both during the relationship and upon relationship breakdown, can also be an option. Ensuring large assets (such as the family home) are in both parties’ names is sensible, provided both are contributing equally to the purchase price, as is having a conversation about how one partner will support themselves should the relationship come to an end and they do not have their own source of income. It is best to have these conversations prior to making any big decisions about becoming a stay-at-home parent.
The Cohabitation Rights Bill aims to improve unfair outcomes in these situations, proposing that couples are given rights to apply for a financial settlement after two or more years, or when children are born. However, such changes have been discussed, and postponed, for many years and it’s important steps are taken to protect interests before beginning to cohabit.