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Myth Busting - Common Law Rights12th May 2022

by Anna Burton on 12th May 2022

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Do Common Law Rights Apply to Unmarried Couples After A Certain Period Of Time?

Let’s get this absolutely clear from the start – there is no such thing as common law ‘marriage’. You don’t get extra rights because you lived with your partner for a certain period of time.

This common misconception needs to be highlighted, particularly as more people choose to cohabit (live together without being married).

If you are living with someone (co-habiting) and you are not married, then your rights at law are far more restricted. Very often, these differences in legal rights do not become apparent until things go wrong and the parties decide to split up.

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What Is Common Law? What Does It Mean?

Common law is simply law that stems from decisions made by judges. They set precedents that help to guide the courts in future. It’s not some kind of bill of rights.


What’s A Common Law Partner?

There’s no such thing as a ‘common law partner’. The term is a myth, a self-contradiction.

What unmarried couples mean (and should say instead of the term ‘common law partners’) is that they are cohabiting partners.

Cohabiting partners who separate do not have common law rights. Living together with someone in a relationship does not entitle you the same rights as if you were married.


Is a Common Law Wife Or Husband Entitled To Half Their Partner’s Assets?

No – again because the idea of a ‘common law wife/husband’ is sheer myth!

Some people believe wrongly that if you live with someone for two years or more then you are automatically entitled to a share of their property. You are not.

There is no legal obligation for cohabiting couples to support each other financially. Married partners have a legal duty to support each other – non-married partners do not.

At a headline level, the fact that you lived with someone for a month, two years, five years, 20 years and so on does not guarantee you a share of your former partner’s property or the family home.

But even if you’re not a legal owner, you may be able to convince a court to give you a share if you can prove that you:

  • contributed financially towards the family home
  • agreed that you should have a financial interest in it
  • relied upon that to your detriment.

Ideally, it’s better to resolve the finances out of court using negotiations, mediation or collaborative law.


If You Have A Child Together Do You Acquire Legal Rights?

An unmarried partner who stays at home to look after the children can’t make claims in their own right for property, maintenance or pension-sharing.

But the family courts can make financial orders for the benefit of the children. The court will always put their interests first – whether you are married or not.

Find out more about children arrangements and financial claims.

Can You Claim Pension Benefits As A Common Law Spouse?

While the term ‘common law spouse’ is incorrect, you may be eligible for dependent’s or survivor’s benefits.

Can You Claim Common Law Rights Without Living Together?

You can’t claim rights for ‘common law marriage’, ‘common law spouse’ or any of the other spurious terms that we’ve already debunked. It doesn’t matter whether you lived together or not.

But if you can prove that you contributed to a property during a relationship (even if you didn’t live there) then you may be entitled to a share of it.


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As you can see, cohabiting partners are at a definite legal disadvantage when compared with married couples.

But there may be solutions – every couple’s circumstances are different so it pays to get expert legal advice.

To protect yourself if anything happens, you could consider entering into a contract with your partner to decide how money and property should be divided if you separate. These are known as cohabitation contracts or agreements and can be drafted by a solicitor.

Book a free phone chat or fixed fee meeting – or contact Family Law Solicitor Anna Burton for more information, 01202 338800.

This document is not intended to constitute and should not be used as a substitute for legal advice on any specific matter. No liability for the accuracy of the content of this document, or the consequences of relying on it, is assumed by the author. If you seek further information, please contact Managing Partner Neil Andrews at Coles Miller Solicitors LLP.