Unmarried couples and the Law

Many people only discover they are not protected when it’s too late!

With marriage on the decrease, unmarried couples and cohabiting families are the fasted growing type of household in the UK.

Contrary to popular belief, common law marriage or being a common-law spouse is a myth and does not exist in UK law.

Just because you have lived together, or have children together, does not mean the law offers you the same protection as it would if you were married, even if you have been together many years.  Often people only discover this on the breakdown of a relationship and that is when it gets expensive to fight for what you believe is yours.

What does this mean in reality?  Well, the harsh reality is that you have no right to a share of any savings, assets or business interests where they are in the sole name of your former partner.  You also have no rights with respect to their pension.  And, you are not entitled to claim financial maintenance for yourself.


Even if a property is jointly owned and the legal title is in both partners names, the division of that property following a breakup may not be straightforward or may create an unfair outcome in the circumstances.  And, if the property is in one partner’s sole name only, it can be extremely complex.

If your home is jointly owned, then it is essential to have two legal documents prepared to fully protect your legal and financial position. The first document, known as a Deed of Trust or Declaration of Trust, will set out the contributions you both made to the purchase price and the size of your respective shares in the equity (net proceeds of sale of the property). This is usually recommended and prepared by your property lawyer. The second document,  known as Cohabitation or Living Together Agreement, sets out how the monthly mortgage repayments and household expenditure will be met, how any additional later cash injections you may have made may change your shares in the equity in the property.  It also sets out what will happen to the property and occupation of it if you decide to part ways. In reality, it makes parting ways slightly easier because what is to happen has been agreed at a time when you wanted the best for each other and therefore fairness dictated matters.

Sarah as a family law solicitor can prepare the second document, the Cohabitation or Living Together Agreement, either prior to purchasing your new home or at any time afterwards.

Failing to have these two documents in place can create a difficult situation for both partners on separation as unmarried cohabitation is a complex area of law.  To fight for what you believe is your share may involve proving part ownership based on financial contribution or a common intention, which is extremely difficult to do, and can come down to one partner’s word against the others!

Case Studies

Children of an Unmarried Couple

It is not automatic for both partners of an unmarried couple to have parental responsibility for children they have together.   The mother automatically has parental responsibility, the father does not (unless he is named on the birth certificate of a child born after 1st December 2003). 

Fathers may, however, acquire parental responsibility by the mother agreeing to it and the agreement being approved by the court, or by court order if the mother objects to the father having parental responsibility.  Stepparents also do not have automatic parental responsibility and neither do grandparents.

Parental responsibility gives you the power to make important decisions in relation to your children.  And, if both parents hold this status, then they must work together in making decisions whether they are still in a relationship or not.  These decisions can include:

Schooling decisions

The child’s name

Appointing the child’s guardian in the event of the death of a parent

Consenting to medical treatment

Taking the child overseas

Representing the child in any legal proceedings

Simply because the child lives with one parent, does not necessarily give that parent the right to make decisions in the above areas without the agreement of the other. If a serious disagreement does arise, this can be resolved through solicitor assistance or mediation.  However, if this is not successful then the court will make the decision.

It must be noted that a parent without parental responsibility will still be eligible to financially support their children.

How Life’s Chapters Can Assist Unmarried Couples:

Whatever stage your relationship is at, whether children are involved or not, Sarah would always encourage you to seek advice and consider drawing up legal agreements to protect you both.

She totally understands that no one wants to consider the possibility that a relationship will fail when everything is all hearts and flowers at the beginning.  However, it is a fact of everyday life that these things do happen, often when least expected.

Sarah can help with:

Cohabitation Agreements or Living Together Agreements

Parental Responsibility

Contact and childcare arrangements for parents

Contact arrangements for grandparents

Sarah’s considered approach to these matters is to make you consider all eventualities.  Both partners need protection and separate representation in the preparation of the appropriate legal documentation. A plan needs to be made ‘just in case’. Think of it as an insurance policy.  If you have it, you will be grateful you did, should your relationship break down.

And, if it’s too late and the relationship has already broken down, Sarah can also help you with contact with and care arrangements for your children and any property claims you may have where there is no Cohabitation Agreement or Living Together Agreement in place.

Whatever the circumstances you are in, whether planning to live together as an unmarried couple or already are/have been, contact Sarah for support and advice.  Sarah will give you both realistic and pragmatic advice about your situation and will only advise you to take action if she believes it will gain results.  She’s a Yorkshire lass through and through and wouldn’t throw your money away, any more than she would her own!

Sarah is just at the end of an email so drop her a line:

What Sarah’s clients say:

"I was impressed with the straightforward, focused and professional service that I received from Sarah. The quality and clarity of the advice that I received were excellent. At each step of the process I felt informed and supported. I also found the billing process very transparent and the monthly accounts helped with budgeting. Overall the service I received represented excellent value for money. Thank you again for helping things to go so smoothly."

"I instructed Sarah in relation to my divorce as she was recommended to me by a friend. She impressed me with her knowledge of the divorce process, her understanding of the issues I was facing and her speed of response. Above all, it was her guidance and sensitivity around how to approach/manage some difficult discussions with my ex-wife (especially in relation to matters impacting on my children), that I valued most. A first class service that I would, and do, highly recommend."

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"I feel I have more progressed and gained more confidence and clarity for the way forward from my initial 60 minute consultation with Sarah than I have from other professional sources over the past 6 months. I can now see the light at the end of tunnel."

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