Separation Myths About So-Called Common Law Couples1st Feb 2018
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.
Now let’s look at some of the most common myths in more detail, based on the questions our family law solicitors get asked a lot.
We’ve deliberately phrased these questions exactly the way we get asked them – warts ‘n’ all – because it helps show how some people assume (wrongly) that they have rights when they don’t.
Need help fast? Book a free phone chat with our family lawyers.
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.
Ask our separation solicitors for more advice about what to do if your relationship is ending.
What’s A Common Law Relationship?
Like the example above, this is another self-contradicting term, another myth. ‘Common law relationship’ is a legally inaccurate misnomer. A better term would be ‘cohabiting relationship’.
What is Common Law Marital Status?
“Non-existent!” is the short answer. Common law marriage is not a legal entity so by definition you can’t have common law marital status. You’re either married or you’re not – there’s no common law ‘halfway house’.
Are Common Law Spouses Responsible For Debt?
As you’ve just read above, ‘common law marriage’ doesn’t exist…so you can’t be a common law spouse. You’re a cohabiting partner – not a spouse. Legally the term ‘spouse’ applies only to people who are married.
So as a cohabiting partner (the correct term), are you responsible for your partner’s debts? Only if you both signed a contract. If you didn’t sign, you’re not liable.
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.
Is a Common Law Wife (Or Husband) Entitled To Alimony?
You know from the previous section that there’s no such thing as a common law wife or husband.
And nor is the term ‘alimony’ recognised in English law. But people tend to use the word because they’ve heard it on TV.
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.
Book A Free Or Fixed Fee Initial Chat
As you can see, cohabiting partners are at a definite legal disadvantage when compared with married couples.
But there may be solutions – as some of the examples above show. Every couple’s circumstances are different so it pays to get expert legal advice.