A YouGov study has found that over a third of cohabiting UK couples were unaware that they do not have the same legal rights as married couples.
The survey of more than 1,000 cohabiting couples showed that 35 per cent either thought they had the same rights as married couples or were unsure.
The study also revealed a surprising lack of awareness of measures (such as cohabitation agreements) that couples who live together can take for improved legal protection. Only 2 per cent of those surveyed had a cohabitation agreement in place, and 76 per cent had not heard of cohabitation agreements.
The respondents showed a similar lack of awareness when asked about property ownership. More than a third did not realise that if a property is owned beneficially as joint tenants, ownership is typically split 50:50, regardless of the contribution each party makes to the deposit or monthly mortgage payments. Nor did nearly 60 per cent realise that, if one of them died, their share would automatically pass to the surviving cohabitee, irrespective of any wishes expressed in their will.
If houses or flats are bought as tenants in common, ownership can be split in whatever shares are agreed at the time of the purchase and a cohabitant’s share in the property can be passed on in their will. However, only 14 per cent had bought their home under this type of ownership.
Despite this general lack of awareness, over 75 per cent of respondents believed that cohabiting couples should have the same legal rights as their married counterparts.
The common law marriage myth
It’s a common misconception that unmarried couples who live together have a ‘common law marriage’ that affords them the same legal rights as married couples and those in a civil partnership. In reality, while cohabitants do have some legal protection in certain areas, there is no general legal status for such couples.
A cohabitation agreement (also called a living together agreement) can set out how a cohabiting couple’s assets should be divided if they separate. It can also set out any child support and financial maintenance arrangements. To be legally enforceable, a cohabitation agreement must be deemed ‘fair’ in the eyes of the court and both parties should obtain independent legal advice on the agreement which can cover any aspect of the cohabitation including property rights, capital division and pension nominations.
For expert help with drawing up a cohabitation agreement, please contact one of our Family Law Services Partners: