Living together (or cohabiting) is becoming more common with 3.3m cohabiting couples in the UK – one in five families – and nearly 300,000 of those couples live in the South West. Cohabiting is the fastest growing family type but unfortunately the law hasn’t quite caught up with the times. There are many reasons why couples may choose not to marry, however most don’t understand their rights or realise that they could be leaving themselves in a vulnerable position if the relationship breaks down.
Many people mistakenly believe that if couples live together for long enough, or after having children, they become ‘common law spouses’ and automatically develop legal responsibility to support each other financially. This is a widespread misconception, because if they split up the courts cannot simply divide finances or property between the two just because it might be fair.
Parents do have financial obligations towards any children they may have, but there are no equivalent responsibilities towards a partner. Partners are not entitled to financial support, even if one partner has given up or reduced work to raise children. This means that person could potentially be left with no financial security, without a home and with no access to pensions or savings.
It is not always clear who owns what finances and property when a relationship ends. Whereas married couples who divorce can have their property legally divided, unmarried couples without proof of ownership do not have the same rights.
Furthermore, unless a cohabiting partner is specifically named in a Will, or if a valid Will has not been created, then a cohabiting partner is not entitled to share in or make claims on their deceased partner’s estate.
The law doesn’t provide basic protection, so cohabiting couples must take action to protect themselves and their family. There are a number of ways to do this including:
• A cohabitation agreement (sometimes referred to as a separation agreement), which will set out both partners’ intentions around property, finances and how they would support their children if they separate;
• If acquiring property jointly, ensure both names are on the deeds to the house and enter into a declaration of trust if parties intend to own the property in unequal shares; and
• Creating a Will is also recommended to reflect the parties’ situation.
These are standard ways to document a couple’s intentions, but every couple is different so cohabiting couples should seek professional advice. Essentially, it will be important to:
• Know your rights and seek legal advice
• Document your intentions from the start
• Consider making a Will.
Mediation can sometimes be a useful forum for couples who are willing to attempt to reach agreement between themselves at any stage during the breakdown of a relationship. A mediator will be completely independent and will work with both parties to ensure that a mutual and realistic agreement is reached for the benefit of the family. For further information about family mediation, please visit
We’re campaigning with Resolution to reform the law in respect of cohabiting and unmarried couples, but in the meantime it’s important to raise awareness so that families are able to protect themselves, so please help us spread the word.


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