Contrary to popular belief there is no such thing as a "common law" wife or husband. The law describes this situation as "co-habitation". Unless a couple are married or in a civil partnership, on other type of relationship extends the same level of protection.
Unmarried couples are at risk if they don't plan or prepare for all eventualities when co-habiting or combining assets. Coming to an understanding about all possible issues before setting up home together is the recommended course of action and committing that understanding to paper can avoid heartache in the event of a relationship breakdown.
A recent case where a man who had split up with his co-habiting partner 17 years ago, was awarded a half share in the house they once lived in, even though he had never paid the mortgage (Appeal Court Case 26 May 2010), shows clearly just how vulnerable couples are if they fail to sort out financial arrangements in a timely manner. The man was awarded the half share because the house was purchased as joint tenants or co-owners and remained so after the relationship ended.
A couple should think very carefully and plan for a "worst case scenario" where they split-up and must deal with the distribution of their assets as, unfortunately, co-habiting couples have fewer rights than those who are married or in a civil partnership.
For example, if one partner of a co-habiting couple dies, any money held in the deceased bank account will become the property of the estate of the deceased and cannot be used until the estate is settled. Further, without a Will, the surviving partner in a co-habiting partnership wil not automatically inherit anything unless the couple owned property jointly and a widow's or widower's pension cannot be claimed by a co-habiting partner. To ensure that your partner is provided for on your death it is very important that a co-habiting couple seek legal advice in relation to estate planning and preparation of a Will.
A survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics (March 2010) revealed that couples who live together are twice as likely to break up as married partners. 4 out of 5 married couples were still together after 10 years yet for the same period 2 out of 5 co-habiting couples had parted.
Seeking the advice of a solicitor more importantly before moving in together, but certainly at the point of breaking up will help to make this as painless as possible and could save a lot of time and money should the couple ultimately break-up.
Margaret Porter, says "It is not surprise that couples do not want to consider the ramifications if they break-up but it is essential that when committing to set up home together, couples should seek legal advice from a solicitor in order to ensure that they have protected their assets."