Cohabitation Rights: Understanding Your Legal Standing as an Unmarried Partner

Cohabitation Rights: Understanding Your Legal Standing as an Unmarried Partner

The number of couples who choose to live together without getting married is increasing in England. Figures from the House of Commons show that this kind of cohabitation arrangement leapt by 144% between 1996 and 2021.

If you’re one of the increasing numbers of people living with a partner and are not married, it’s important to keep in mind that your cohabitation rights concerning issues such as property and finances won’t be the same as those of a married couple should you separate, or your partner passes away.

What legal rights do unmarried partners have in a cohabitation relationship?

When you get married, there are clear legal rights afforded to each party. These legal rights can help to provide clarity in the event of a separation and ease the process of dividing money, property and other shared assets should the marriage break down. Those same legal rights aren’t provided as cohabitation rights.

In fact, very few cohabitation rights are given to couples. You won’t automatically be treated as next of kin if your partner becomes ill for example, you won’t be entitled to their state pension if he or she dies, and you won’t be entitled to the same tax benefits as married couples. Additionally, if you live in a property that your partner owns, you’ll have no legal right to remain in the home if your relationship ends.

How does cohabitation affect property ownership and financial responsibilities?

The rights and responsibilities of each property with regard to property and the financial cost of that property aren’t as straightforward as you may think. That’s because they are determined by how property ownership has been split, and what written agreements are in in place.

  • You own the property together: If you both own an equal share of the property, you’ll be known as joint tenants. If your relationship breaks down, you’ll need to mutually agree on what happens to the property. Should one of you die, the other person will automatically inherit their share of the property.
  • You own differing shares of the property: Not all couples will have an equal share of the property they own. It could be that one person paid a greater share of the deposit or paid a larger chunk of the mortgage. If that’s the case, you’ll be known as tenants in common. You’ll be entitled to your own share of the property if you decide to separate. If you’re together when your partner dies, you won’t automatically inherit their share – this would need to be specified in their will.
  • You live in a property owned by your partner: Unless you retain documented evidence that shows you’ve made a significant contribution to the home (by paying for a major repair or refurbishment for example, or by making regular contributions to monthly mortgage payments), you’ll have no right to the property following a separation.

Should your relationship break down, you’ll both be financially responsible for your shared child or children and child support must be paid.

What happens to assets and property in the event of separation or death in a cohabiting relationship?

As noted, cohabitating couples don’t have the same legal protections as married couples in the event of separation or death. This can be particularly stressful and problematic if one partner dies, as the surviving partner will have very few legal rights on their side.

In order to make medical decisions for a partner who falls ill, or to make arrangements as their next of kin in the event of death, a written agreement must be in place. Likewise, you won’t have the right to access their bank accounts or receive their state pension should they die.

If you each own a share of the property, you won’t inherit your partner’s share of the home in the event of their death unless that is explicitly stated in their will. If you separate, each partner will retain their own share of the home and must decide jointly what course of action to take next.

What steps can unmarried partners take to protect their cohabitation rights and interests?

One of the most important steps you can take if you plan to live with your partner but not get married is to create a cohabitation agreement which you’ll both need to sign. This is a legal document which your family solicitor can help you draft. It will set out what happens to shared possessions if the relationship breaks down, as well as outline the financial responsibilities of both parties for things like household costs and jointly incurred debts.

In addition to a cohabitation agreement, you should also consider making a will to ensure each party’s wishes regarding their partner are adhered to in the event of a death.

If you’re planning to live with your partner, speak to our friendly family solicitors about drafting a cohabitation agreement. This document can save you much stress and anxiety if your relationship ends at a later date. It also ensures that each party enters into the new living arrangements with a clear idea of the financial contribution expected of them, helping to reduce friction and arguments.

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