Today we have another reminder that the myth of “common law marriage” persists, with the news that almost half the people in England and Wales mistakenly believe that people who live together have the same rights as married couples. This is according to findings from a new survey on British societal attitudes, carried out by the National Centre for Social Research and Exeter University.

Of those people surveyed, only 41 per cent answered correctly when asked about the legal status of “common law marriage”. Even more worryingly is the finding that among the cohabiting couples with children who were surveyed, 55 per cent believed that common law marriage existed.

So let me start this article by making it absolutely clear: there is no such thing as “common law marriage” in England and Wales. It does not matter how long you are together, whether you have children or how your finances are managed, nothing you do will give rise to you acquiring the same rights as a married couple.

This mistaken belief in “common law” marriage has existed for a number of years, and in my practice I see the heart-breaking results when cohabitees come to me for advice when their relationship breaks down. The realisation that they have very few rights can have devastating consequences, particularly if children are involved.

What options are open to cohabitees who split up?

It is sometimes possible to make a claim against your former partner’s assets. This will depend on the contributions you have made and how your finances have been managed. There are also some claims which can be made if you have a child together. However, a word of caution: these types of claim can be expensive and take months, sometimes years, to resolve through the Courts.

To avoid this situation, I always advise unmarried couples to consider entering into a Cohabitation Agreement. These agreements give clarity and certainty about what should happen if you split up or one of you dies.

It is not the most romantic thing in the world, but sometimes letting your head rule your heart is important. A Cohabitation Agreement means you will know your rights and puts you in an informed position to make decisions, so you can avoid any shocks if the unfortunate happens.