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Am I a common law husband or wife?

View profile for Sally Clark
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The very short answer to this question is “no”.

Legally there is no such thing as a common law husband or wife. It is a very common misconception that if you live with another person for a period of time that you acquire rights in relation to money or property similar to those of a married couple. This is not the case, however. The only way to acquire those rights is to marry or to enter into a civil partnership. If you just live with a partner then the law generally does not give you any more rights than if you were living with a friend or another family member such as a brother or sister.

If the relationship breaks down, you cannot claim any maintenance for yourself and you cannot claim a share in assets owned in your partner’s sole name. The simple position is that anything you own is yours, anything they own is theirs and any joint assets are owned equally unless there is a separate document or evidence to show that you have unequal shares.  

If you have children with your partner then you can claim maintenance for them and under the Children Act it is possible to make further limited claims on their behalf. Depending on your own financial resources however, you can be left in a vulnerable position if your relationship breaks down.

A common problem is that very often the property in which you live may be owned in your partner’s sole name. In that case you will have no interest or financial rights in the property unless you can show that either :
a) you have invested money in the property; for example funded an extension or paid a lump sum off the mortgage; or
b) that the other person has told you that you are going to have an interest in the property and you have relied on this to your disadvantage
Simply paying toward the outgoings does not give you a financial claim.

Therefore if you are living with a partner it is important that you think carefully about your position and ideally discuss with your partner what will happen in the event that the relationship comes to an end.

You can also be left in a difficult position if your partner dies and has not made a will. As a cohabitee you are not their next of kin and you have no automatic right of inheritance. If there is no will then under the intestacy rules, their assets will pass to other family members or relatives and not to you. You can bring a court claim to have money from the estate if you have lived together for more than two years and were dependent on your partner. A claim can be expensive however, and time consuming as well as very distressing if you are also having to cope with your partner's death. Therefore if you are living with a partner it is very important that you make wills providing for each other.

If you would like any advice on your rights as a cohabitee then please contact one of our family law experts.