It may not be romantic but it is vital that you know your legal rights when you start living with another person. The number of unmarried couples living together has doubled since the 1990s and the countryside community is no different. Only about a quarter of couples see cohabitation as a step to later marry and a recent study has shown that a fifth have ruled out marriage altogether at the outset.
Am I protected as ‘common law husband/wife’? It’s a myth! There is no such legal concept. Many find this out when it’s too late. In law, co-habitation is very different to marriage.
Do I have to pay/can I claim maintenance if we split? No. You may have lived together for many years and given up careers to bring up children, but the present law does not provide for any ongoing maintenance.
What about maintenance for our children? If you cannot voluntarily agree the level of maintenance for your children, then the Child Maintenance Service (formerly the Child Support Agency) assesses maintenance on a gross income basis and the extent to which the care of the children is shared. Dependent upon your particular circumstances, there could also be a claim for a ‘top up’ on the gross maintenance calculation, or an application for a lump sum under the Children Act to provide capital for a home for those children while they are minors or in full time education.
What about the house? If your house is owned in one name then beware! There is no automatic right for the non-owning party to stay in the house once the relationship breaks down. If you intend that the non-owning party should have an interest in the house that should be formally dealt with at the outset. Without documentary evidence whether or not the non-owning party has an interest turns on complex Trust Law. If the house is owned in both your names then usually the property is owned 50:50 unless there is written or verbal proof to the contrary. The Court can also look at how you conducted your financial arrangements during the relationship to determine who is entitled to what.
Are there any special considerations for rural communities? In one word, ‘diversification’. The benefit of living in a rural area brings business opportunities – liveries, kennels, farm shops etc. Ideas conceived together, requiring capital from one partner and hard graft from the other, add extra dimensions. Assumptions or vague ‘agreements’ that you will each receive a ‘fair share’ of any business built up together will fall on deaf judicial ears without the paperwork to back it up. Declarations of Trust, Partnership Agreements and Living Together Agreements can avoid expensive and acrimonious proceedings. Difficult as it might be to have the conversation now – don’t leave it to chance.
What is a ‘Living Together Agreement’ and is it binding? A Cohabitation or Living Together Agreement will not only detail who owns what within your relationship but also how personal savings and jointly-owned possessions will be distributed should the relationship come to an end. You can also predetermine how much each person will pay towards rent, mortgage and monthly bills as well as how child support will be sorted if the relationship ends. It is binding provided it is properly done.
What about if one of us dies during the relationship? There is no automatic right of inheritance unless a property is held as ‘joint tenants’ and accounts are held in joint names. If you intend that your partner should (or should not) benefit in the event of your death – make a Will. It could save your estate from inheritance tax and a lot of expensive litigation later.
The law is complicated, everyone is different. Always get advice.
Carmelita Ardren is a partner, head of Raworths’ Family Law, a collaborative lawyer and an advanced member of the Law Society Family Law Panel. To contact Raworths telephone 01423 566666 or visit our offices at Eton House, 89 Station Parade, Harrogate, HG1 1HF. Alternatively, you can email Carmelita.firstname.lastname@example.org.