It’s the part of living together that everybody believes in… but which simply doesn’t exist.
Although even 69 per cent of MPs believe in the existence of common law marriage, the truth is that it ceased to be part of the British legal system way back in 1753.
But that doesn’t stop couples who live together without getting married from thinking they do have some protection by law.
“With cohabitation on the increase, the myth surrounding the rights of cohabitees continues to confuse many, possibly leading to financial hardship for many who choose to cohabit rather than tie the knot,” says Angela Lally, of Sheffield law firm Simpson Sissons & Brooke.
“The fact that common law marriage ceased to exist in 1753 has seemingly not stopped the misconstrued belief that living together for a certain number of months - I have often heard clients say that six months is the relevant threshold - provides the same rights for cohabitees as a married couple but it does not.”
And Angela is now urging couples who choose to live together rather than going through a church or civil ceremony to protect their financial interests with a formal Living Together Agreement.
“A Living Together Agreement is a useful way of helping a couple to set out who will be entitled to what in the event they separate,” Angela said.
“Another way of protecting finances is to consider how a property will be owned when it is purchased and look at putting in place a trust deed.”
When a couple marry, the law provides a series of rights and remedies which ultimately mean that if a marriage does end in divorce, the whole of the couples’ finances can be looked at, including houses, savings, pensions, income and inheritance. However, a cohabiting couple will not have any rights specific to their cohabitation.
“There are different laws relating to trusts and property which they may seek to rely upon to stake a financial claim, but the laws are piecemeal and often confusing,” said Angela.
“For example, if the house is owned in the sole name of one of the parties, then even if the couple have been living together for many years, there is no guarantee that the non-owner will have a financial claim – something that would be completely different if the parties were married.”
Angela added that a change to the law to allow cohabitees the same rights as married couples would clear up any myths and misconceptions. “On the other hand, there is the argument that this will devalue the institution of marriage,” she said.
“Whatever changes may be afoot will certainly be interesting for cohabitees but it is likely to take time as this is a debate which has been rumbling on for many years.
“It is advisable therefore to seek expert advice if you are thinking of moving in with your partner, buying a house together or even if you have been living together already.
“Also, if there are children, we can advise about a possible claim under children act laws to preserve assets for the benefit of children.”
For more information or for a free initial chat, contact Angela Lally, head of family law, at Simpson Sissons & Brooke on 0114 280 8813 or email firstname.lastname@example.org