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SPOILER ALERT! Common Law Marriage - the biggest urban myth?

View profile for Victoria Poole
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Along with bats being blind, Vikings having had horns on their helmets and you never being more than 6ft away from a rat, the ‘common law marriage’ could arguably be one of the biggest urban myths around.

Real or no real?

Despite living in an age where more couples are choosing cohabitation over marriage, surveys by the charity OnePlusOne and British Social Attitudes revealed that up to 58% of us believe:

  1. that cohabiting, or living together as an unmarried couple, constitutes a ‘common law marriage’

  2. a ‘common law marriage’ is a recognised legal status

  3. a ‘common law marriage’ therefore gives the partners involved the same legal rights as a married couple.

The harsh reality is that all 3 of these ‘beliefs’ are categorically incorrect.

Although cohabitation figures have doubled over the last 15 years or so, also making cohabitation the fastest growing family types in the UK, the English law does not recognise a ‘common law marriage, a ‘common-law spouse’ or a ‘common-law partner’.

We cohabit – what does that mean for us?

Whilst no one really wants to consider the possibility of their relationship turning sour, particularly when it’s all going swimmingly well, simply put, a cohabiting couple does not have the same legal protection, rights or responsibilities as a married couple, in the event of that relationship breaking down.

And this is regardless of how long you’ve been together, lived together, the financial contributions or support choices you’ve made together or whether you have children.

What’s the worst that can happen?

It’s a worrying scenario that has the very real potential to leave cohabiting families in an incredibly difficult and compromised position, possibly homeless and/or without any form of income or maintenance.

And where children are involved, separation issues after a split are often about strict legal rights and not fairness.

With or without children, aside from the heartache and turmoil of a relationship breakdown, resolving the separation matters of a cohabiting couple that have split can become extremely complicated, messy and expensive.

Are there any plans for changes in the law?

Sadly not, currently. Despite the Law Commission making recommendations in 2007 that the rights of cohabiting partners upon separation should be increased, very little has changed.

Furthermore, the current government indicated in 2011 that it had no plans to act on the proposed reforms.

It’s a potentially bleak outlook.

Is there any good news?! So what can we do?

Yes, thankfully there is.

The simple solution is to draw up a cohabitation agreement together.

This document enables both of you to clearly set out who owns what and in what proportion, how you would propose to split your property, its contents, personal belongings, savings and other assets in the possible event of your split.

You can also include details of how you plan to support your children together as well as how you’d deal with joint bank accounts, debts and joint purchases e.g. a car.

We’re not sure we can afford or justify it at the moment…

The very real cost of resolving all matters surrounding the breakdown of a cohabiting relationship can often run into the tens of thousands and hugely outweighs the cost of drawing up a cohabitation agreement.

Not only that, a cohabitation agreement, much like a pre-nuptial agreement, helps to secure both yours, your partner’s and your children’s future, and will bring you both some degree of certainty should the relationship break down.


If you’d like more information or to further discuss a cohabitation agreement, why not pop in to one of our FREE Family Law clinics or call the office on 01606 48777 to book a FREE 30 minute appointment with one of our Family Law solicitors.


This article has been written for your general information only and is not a detailed statement of the law. It should not be used as a substitute for specific legal advice. If you require specific legal advice please do not hesitate to contact us on 01606 48777.