What is a “Common-Law” Partner?

What is a “Common-Law” Partner?

Legally speaking, there is no such thing as a common law partner. However, the term is coined, in the media, as someone who is in a long-term relationship and is cohabiting with another person at the same address on a permanent basis.

Partners who are not legally married do not enjoy the same legal rights in family law as a couple who are in a civil partnership or legal marriage. This can lead to confusion when it comes to rights and settlements should the relationship come to an end.

What is a “common-law” partner entitled to?

In the event of a relationship breakdown, it is a misconception that unmarried partners are entitled to 50% of all assets accrued during the relationship. In fact, such partners are not afforded the same legal rights as a married partner seeking a divorce would be entitled to.

Therefore, determining what each unmarried partner is entitled to from the relationship is normally a time-consuming process that requires the help of a qualified legal professional. This is especially true if the relationship break down has not been amicable and the parties involved cannot come to an agreement in private.

Unmarried partners are also not entitled to a share of their former partner’s pension or inherit their estate in the event of their death. This can leave some individuals at risk of not being provided for, regardless of the amount of time the couple has lived together.

In the event of a separation where children are involved, unmarried partners given the role of the primary caregiver are able to seek child maintenance support for any offspring arising from the relationship.

The difference between “common law” and civil law

The main difference is that those in civil law partnership relationships are recognised and protected by UK law while unmarried partnerships are not.

Legal protection for civil law partnerships offers clear cut guidance and outlines rights relating to things such as inheritance, pensions and taxes. Without this framework, legal issues, rights and responsibilities arising from common-law relationships are often more difficult to settle.

What does cohabitation mean?

Cohabitation means living together in the same residence for an extended period of time, generally as husband or wife or as part of a romantic relationship.
By its nature, cohabitation implies that both parties have a relationship of an intimate nature, but this isn’t always the case and does not refer to casual encounters.

Are cohabitation agreements legally binding?

Disputes arising from the breakdown of common-law relationships can be complex, drawn out and often cause significant stress and anxiety for all involved, but there are ways to simplify the legal rights and responsibilities of both parties. This can be done by the creation of a cohabitation agreement when both parties are resident in the same property.

A cohabitation agreement sets out how the parties will share financial responsibilities while living together and what should happen if one person falls ill, dies or should the relationship come to an end for any other reason.

They can also be used to cover specific arrangements for any children resulting from the relationship to provide certainty and avoid costly and lengthy legal disputes later on down the line.

Cohabitation agreements are legally binding and provide peace of mind in this often complex area of family law and can be put in place by a family law specialist.

How does cohabitation affect divorce settlements?

Although many people wish to move on as quickly as possible once a marriage comes to an end, cohabitation with a new partner can significantly affect a divorce settlement – regardless of how long the relationship has been in effect or the circumstances surrounding it.

When legal professionals gather to decide the amount to be paid to ex-spouses in a divorce settlement, a legal judgement is made using established facts presented to the court by the legal representatives of both parties.

If one of the parties is now in a new relationship and is co-habiting with them, the judge will ask what financial contribution is made, or should reasonably be made, to the ex-spouse towards their financial needs.

Cohabiting may not bring spousal maintenance to an end completely, but it does signify a change in their circumstances that warrants further consideration as it alters the resources and needs of the cohabiting party in the eyes of the law.

This could lead to financial settlements being paid to the ex-spouse now cohabiting with a new partner being significantly less than expected. It is always advisable to seek professional, expert representation from a specialist family law solicitor before any legal action is taken to ensure you’re clear on your rights concerning cohabitation and financial settlements.

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Shaoli has been a solicitor at NLS for over two years, transitioning from a background in criminal law to full-time family law. Her experience as a Criminal Duty Solicitor has equipped her with unique skills that are invaluable in her current role.
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