Are you unmarried and considering moving in with your partner? If so, there are certain aspects of English law unmarried couples should think about before doing so.
The most important, and for some the most surprising, is that unmarried couples do not have a protected legal status when you living with each other, as they would if they were married.
Efforts are ongoing to secure legal rights for unmarried couples who are cohabiting (http://www.resolution.org.uk/editorial.asp?page_id=986&displayMode=preview) however as it stands, living with someone (whilst being unmarried) is legally complicated and uncertain.
Particularly if you are the less financially comfortable of the two, it is important you’re aware of the risks, including:
- If you move into a property belonging to your partner, you will not acquire a share in that property or a right to live there simply because you have been living in it for a period of time, even if you do contribute to outgoings such as food or the utility bills.
- If you move into a property rented out in your partner’s name, you will not acquire a right to occupy that property simply because you have been living in it, or because you are paying the rent (or contributing to it).
- If you live with your partner, you do not automatically have a right to their share of any property or possessions in the event of their death and vice versa.
These potential issues for unmarried couples become particularly relevant and often problematic if something goes wrong in the course of a relationship, such as in the event of a separation or a death. Whilst these are understandably unwelcome thoughts, taking appropriate steps early on can be a reassuring exercise and will serve to limit the possible future risks and their impact.
The Formalities – minimising risk
Given the uncertain legal status for couples’ living together it may be advisable to introduce some formality into your dealings, which will provide you both with clarity in relation to your circumstances – now and in the future.
If you are planning on renting, ensure that you are both named on the tenancy.
If you are planning to buy a property jointly with your partner, make sure you discuss and agree before exchange of contracts in whose name/s the property will be registered; and in what shares the property will be owned. It is advisable to receive independent, tailored legal advice on both property ownership and mortgage matters at an early stage.
Declaration of trust
If you are going to buy a property jointly with your partner, you should see a solicitor and ask them to draw up a document called a Declaration of Trust. This document sets out in clear and enforceable legal language your agreement regarding the terms of your joint ownership.
A cohabitation agreement sets out what would happen to any property, money and possessions if you and your partner were to separate.
This agreement can also cover issues that may arise in the duration of your relationship such as who pays which bills, the operation of joint bank accounts, arrangements for support of a partner who gives up work to have children, and more or less anything else which affects the financial and other dealings between a couple.
You can find cohabitation agreements online or you may instruct a solicitor to draft one for you. If it were ever to be used in court, be aware that the language needs to be legally correct and you need to be able to show that you both took independent legal advice before signing it. If you’re unsure about what you would want to include in such an agreement and the impact of any terms, do consult with a solicitor.
When you die, the partner you live with does not automatically have a right to your property or possessions. You would need a Will to clearly set out what you intend to happen to your interest in your home, your savings and personal possessions.
As the law around living with someone is complicated, any errors in a Will can cause problems after your death. It is therefore advisable to have a Will formally drawn up by a solicitor, dealing with all relevant issues.
It may not be particularly pleasant to think about or to plan for unwelcome eventualities. However it is strongly advisable for unmarried couples to seriously think about and discuss the possibilities that can arise whilst living together; and consider what they would like to do in such circumstances.
Assessing the available options at the earliest opportunity, speaking to a solicitor about your personal situation, and then deciding what is best for you, is an appropriate way to arm yourself against life’s sometimes unexpected twists and turns.
Should you wish to receive detailed and tailored advice in relation to any of these matters please do not hesitate to contact our offices for a confidential discussion.
Solicitor, Family Department