Cohabitees - the law
Unmarried couples that live together have fewer legal rights than married couples. TheSite.org demystifies the jargon.
What are cohabitees?
Cohabitees are couples that live together, including same-sex relationships. The law is the same whether the individuals are the same sex or not.
Many people think that the term 'common law wife' or husband means that after a certain period of time they will have the same rights as an actual husband or wife; however, these relationships don't actually have the same legal recognition, even if you're engaged to be married.
If you want to protect your assets (money, possessions and property), you can draw up a legal agreement called a 'cohabitation contract' or 'living together agreement'. This will outline the rights and obligations towards each other, such as how a jointly-owned house is shared. If you want to do this it would be a good idea to get legal advice on how to draw one up. It's also worth writing a will so you can decide if you want to leave anything to your partner, as this won't happen automatically if you're not married.
Money: Unlike married couples, cohabitees are under no legal duty to look after one another financially, unless you've made a specific agreement to do so. You and your partner are legally responsible for your own debts, the whole of debts in joint names, and debts for which you have 'joint and several' legal responsibility. If you were to break up and one of you didn't use the account at all, you would need to prove you had rights to any money, for example, by showing you regularly put money into a particular bank account.
Tax: Cohabitees are now taxed in the same way as married couples, and that means you're taxed separately. You will also have the same rights under benefit rules.
Unlike married couples, cohabitees are under no legal duty to look after one another financially, unless you've made a specific agreement to do so.
Children: Both parents have legal responsibility to look after their children until they have completed full-time education. However, with the Children and Adoption Act 2006, unmarried fathers automatically have the same rights as married fathers, providing they: sign a parental responsibility order; sign the birth register; have obtained a court order; or have became the child's guardian if the mother dies. Lesbian or gay partners have no automatic parental responsibility for their partner's children. You may be able to get responsibility through a court order or as a step-parent if you are in a civil partnership. For more information, check out our fact sheet on separating with children.
Property: Unmarried couples have the same property rights regardless of whether they are in a relationship or not. Any property continues to belong to its owner and that is usually the person who paid for it, and has their name on the documents. Jointly-owned property may need to be sold upon break up, and the proceeds of sale divided according to the law. If you're renting a property from your partner and you break up with them you will usually have no rights to stay if the tenant asks you to leave. For more information, check out our fact sheet on Finances after separation.
Death: If your partner dies and doesn't leave a will, you won't automatically inherit anything unless you own property together. Unlike married or civil partners, you won't be exempt from paying inheritance tax. If you inherit money or property from an unmarried partner, you are not exempt from paying inheritance tax, while married couples are - the inheritance threshold is £312,000 for 2008/9. If one partner dies without leaving enough in their will for the other to live on, the surviving partner may be able to go to court to claim from their estate.
In 2006, the Government revealed new proposals that could award live-in couples who break up similar legal rights to married couples. The reform would come in a family justice bill and mean that cohabiting couples who have been together for over two years would have the right to:
- Court settlements over homes, maintenance payments and lump sum settlements;
- Those with children together would automatically qualify for a settlement if they break up, which will include child support compensation;
- Compensation awards settled in court valued in terms of how much they gave to the relationship emotionally and financially;
- Pension-splitting could be applied to split couples in the same way as it is to divorced couples.
Since 2006, not much has changed; however, in the summer of 2008 a new campaign was launched by Liberal Democrat peer Baron Lester of Herne Hill to encourage the introduction of a bill in Parliament towards the end of 2008. This will give unmarried couples similar legal and financial protection to husbands and wives, so watch this space...
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