This means that the legal rights cohabiting couples have are different to couples that are married. Essentially, there is no protection for a (financially) vulnerable party. Whilst there have been proposals for a cohabitation law in England, at the moment there is no protection for cohabitants as such. When there are problems and relationships breakdown, the law is not clear, as it is in respect of divorce and civil partnership dissolution.
A case which has recently hit the news headlines highlights the dangers of cohabiting without formalising matters. The case featured 69 year old Joy Williams who won the right to receive her deceased partner Norman’s share of their home. This was despite the fact that Norman was actually married to someone else (Maureen) and had not updated his will.
Joy and Norman had been living together for 18 years owning their joint property as ‘tenants in common’; however Norman had never divorced from Maureen. This type of property ownership does not allow one party to inherit from the other and therefore, when Norman died, Maureen inherited Norman’s share of the property, not Joy.
Norman’s wife Maureen planned to sell her share of the property and therefore Joy took the matter to Court as she could not afford to buy Norman’s share of the property from Maureen. Joy succeeded in her application as the Judge held it to be fair and reasonable that Joy be given full ownership due to the fact that Joy and Norman had lived in the property in a committed relationship equivalent to marriage.
Emma Alfieri from our family team commented: “this case highlights the factors that should be considered by cohabiting couples, particularly when property is purchased in joint names. Thought should be given as to how they would like to own that property and if, for example, one party contributes more to the purchase price than the other party, then this can and should be recorded, as well as Wills being prepared.
Problems also often arise where one party moves in to the other party’s solely owned home and they separate some time later. Difficulties can arise if the non-owning party has contributed towards the property, for example by paying for an extension or other home improvements.
“In our family law team we are meeting with an increasing number of cohabiting clients who find themselves surprised by their own situation and more often than not they are surprised that a “common law” marriage does not exist. Unfortunately our law in relation to cohabiting couples is out of date. Therefore cohabiting couples should consider having a cohabitation agreement drawn up at the outset to confirm their intentions, as well as keeping Wills up to date”.