common law marriage

Clients often assume that because they have been together for a number of years, they are in a “common law marriage” and they have legal rights over their partner’s assets. Regrettably, this is simply not true.

This article is part of a series of articles that aim to debunk the top 10 myths and misconceptions around divorce and finances that we have come across with our clients.

Many people believe in “Common Law Marriage”, but the reality is that in the UK, there is no such thing. If you’re not married, you do not have automatic rights to each other’s assets.

A “Common Law Marriage” case

A while ago, I had a new client come to see me. She had lived with her partner for over 20 years, they had no children, she worked and had also been the home-maker for much of their relationship. Her partner owned everything in his sole name, except for one joint account which had a little in it, as it was used to pay the day-to-day bills. He earned far more than her and all her income was spent on their household and holidays.

I had to advise her that when he had left, she had no claim against him, save for a share of the joint account, not even for maintenance. This included the car she drove, which was owned in his name. Understandably, the client was devastated by my advice, but that is the reality.

How can you protect yourself if you’re not married?

Firstly, if there are any children, then there is a claim both for maintenance for the children and a claim for housing for the children from which a client can benefit.

Next, you can always have a cohabitation agreement, which regulates the financial arrangements between the couple. This is a written contract and if that makes provision for a share of assets, it is enforceable like any other contract.

If you are contributing any capital for a project, you need to ensure that your name is on the assets involved. You can define what your interest is. You can both put this on the title for the property (not necessarily at 50/50) or in the shareholding of a company or some other form of business.

Lastly, if you have contributed in a substantial way, or based on a specific promise from your partner, you can go to court to try and establish this fact, and claim a share. This route is complex, difficult and expensive if contested, and it is therefore the least desirable option.

The conclusion is, if you intend to invest in any relationship, then you should ensure that the investment is properly recorded. If you are in any doubt, then you should get professional legal advice. Our team can advise you on the best way of ensuring that you can secure your contribution in a way that you will it recover if the relationship breaks down.

To see the full series of our Top 10 divorce finance myths, please click here.