There persists to this day an urban myth that couples who choose to live together and not get married will after time acquire the same rights of married couples, by virtue of being in a “common law marriage”. Unfortunately, such concept simply does not exist.
No matter how long an unmarried couple choose to live together and no matter how committed they are to each other, they are still just living together and acquire no specific rights as married couples do. Any cohabitee, even after 20-30 years of being together and raising a family into adulthood, who thinks if their relationship is at an end that the law will ensure them an even and fair split of all assets will likely have a rude awakening. To repeat, unmarried couples have no automatic or guaranteed rights to any share of the others financial resources on separation.
The courts do have powers to make orders for those ending cohabitation relationships but any decision is based upon complex rules of trust doctrine or proprietary estoppel. Generally, a party is broadly only entitled to what one has contributed, which is not very fair if one party has traditionally been the homemaker and the other the breadwinner. The concept of “fairness” is almost completely non-existent.
Parliament has known for some years the law of cohabitation is unsatisfactory. Various Law Commissions have pondered what can be done, although little consensus has been the result. If one though examines matters closely, it can be seen that the edges are however very slowly beginning to be chipped away. This can be seen notably as to pensions, specifically some public service pension schemes. Of course, the value of such pension schemes can be a close second to that of the couples property. Since 2009, regulations have been in place whereby for those limited type pension schemes the party who has the benefit of such a plan can nominate their unmarried partner to be the “surviving partner” if they were to pass away.
Prior to this only married widows could benefit.
Although this in itself may not seem to be a great change, the potential monies involved throughout the industry is vast. Now, the Supreme Court in a decision given on 8 February 2017 has gone even further in that surviving cohabitees can still claim against their deceased partner’s public service pension even if that person had not included their details in a nomination form with the Pension Administrators. This places the surviving cohabitant on an equal footing with a married spouse. However, this does not apply to mere relationship breakdown. Such law continues as before in that if cohabiting parties separate, the pension pot remains intact for the individual who accrued it, and the other can make no claim on it as a result of their relationship. Pension sharing, as per married couples, is not available.
There can be no question that there is much progress to be made before unmarried couples can have any proper redress when their relationships end. It is though refreshing to see movement in the right direction and we shall have to wait and see what comes next.
In the meantime, any couples who are considering embarking upon a cohabitation relationship, could benefit from entering into a deed of arrangement such as a Living Together Agreement. This Deed could provide for and set out each parties rights and obligations to each other if the unfortunate circumstance occurs that they wish to part company. Leaving matters in the hope things will just work out may not be a pleasant experience.
The specialist team at Stephen Rimmer LLP are well placed to advise and assist with any requirement you may have; just call 01323 644222.