Cohabitation Agreements – Do you need one?

If you are living as an unmarried couple the simple answer to this question is probably yes, given that under English law cohabiting couples have little or no legal protection if their relationships break down.

Cohabiting couples are the fastest growing family type in the UK with almost 7 million people living in this type of relationship and the numbers are projected to rise further as the decline in marriage continues.

It is perhaps astonishing in the circumstances that the law does not recognise the rights of unmarried couples who live together.

In a previous article, we talked about the myth of the “common law husband or wife” and highlighted the difficulties that unmarried couples can experience asserting their rights to the family home.  The difficulties do not stop there.  Under the current law, a couple could live together for 20, 30 or even 50 years (periods longer than most marriages) and following separation, simply walk away without any on-going financial responsibility to each other.   Perhaps even more surprisingly, the case remains the same even when the couple have children together.

Imagine the not uncommon scenario of an unmarried couple with young children.  The mother has given up work, putting her career on hold to look after them.  Should their relationship break down, although the father will have a responsibility to pay child support he will have no financial obligations to his former partner.  This is despite the fact that they made choices together as a couple which may have prejudiced the woman financially and damaged her career prospects.

You may have seen reference in the press or social media during the last week in November to “Cohabitation Awareness Week”. This campaign is about raising awareness amongst cohabiting couples and is calling for the introduction of laws to provide cohabiting couples with legal rights.

Sadly however, pending any change in the law many unmarried couples will remain vulnerable if their relationship breaks down and may find that it is too late for a family lawyer to help them.

So what can you do pending a change in the law?

You and your partner could agree to enter into a Cohabitation Agreement, to protect you both if  your relationship breaks down. The Agreement can record your intentions and deal with both the financial arrangements whilst you are living together and set out what will happen to finances and property if the worst happens and you split up.

You could also consider taking out life insurance and you should definitely make a Will.

Many unmarried couples continue in the mistaken belief that they have rights as a common law husband or wife, when no legal rights exist. If you are in a cohabiting relationship, it is important to seek legal advice from a specialist family lawyer so that you understand how you would be affected financially if your relationship were to break down and how a Cohabitation Agreement could help to protect you.

For more information or advice, please contact Alison Winterbottom in our Family Department.

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