Are you a common law spouse?

You may believe you are, afterall, it is a term frequently used to describe a couple in a long term relationship, usually living together.  Nevertheless, the correct answer is no.  Currently, in legal terms, there is no such thing.   

That also means that unless you are married or in a civil partnership, living with your partner does not give you any legal status.  If your relationship ends, you have no rights at all, no matter how long you have lived in the same house, or whether you have had children together.  

New legislation currently called The Cohabitation Rights Bill 2016-17 is proposed.  It is in the planning stages, and if passed by Parliament it would provide basic protection for long-term cohabitees who live together as a couple. It is proposed that the protection would be available to couples who have children together, and couples who have lived together continuously for more than three years.  However, until the law is enacted, cohabitees have very few rights.  

Consider, the worst case scenario, your partner dies suddenly without making a Will, they owned the property that you live in and you have separate bank accounts.  You will have no immediate right to their assets, which will be distributed under intestacy rules.  Cohabitees do not currently feature in the list of potential beneficiaries.  

You may have a legal claim for a share of the assets under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975.  Provided you can prove that you and the deceased had lived in one household as husband and wife for a period of at least 2 years you are entitled to issue an Inheritance Act claim and ask the court for a larger share of their assets.  If you have been promised a share in the property, or that it would be yours when they die, you may have a proprietary estoppel claim.  But starting legal proceedings should be the last thing on your mind when you are grieving for a partner.     

In 2015 the difficulties that can face an unmarried cohabitee were highlighted in a court case brought by a lady called Ms Williams.  She had lived with her partner, Mr Martin in a house that they owned together for 18 years.  When Mr Martin died suddenly in 2013, he was still married to his wife and he had never made a Will.

Following Mr Martin’s death his half share in their home was valued at £320,000, and under the intestacy rules his share in the property passed to his wife.  Although they had been separated for over 18 years, because they had never divorced she was entitled to inherit his entire estate.    

Ms Williams was forced to make an Inheritance Act claim, and fortunately the court awarded her Mr Martin’s share in the property.  Unfortunately, of course Ms Williams grief at suddenly losing her partner was exacerbated by having to issue court proceedings to protect something that no doubt Mr Martin had always intended to be hers.   

Until the new Cohabitation Bill is enacted, if you are living with someone who you are not married to, you should ensure that you both have an up to date Will.  If you own property in joint names, make sure you take steps to ensure that your co-owner will inherit it.  

To discuss an Inheritance Act claim or for more information about protecting your assets, please contact