I have been trying to highlight the difficulties for unmarried couples for too long now and still I am amazed and infuriated by the general misunderstanding of common law husband or wife.
I was recently contacted by an elderly gentleman who had been with his partner for some 21 years in a property owned solely in her name. His partner had suffered a fall and was having a long stay in hospital. Her son had adopted the “I'm in charge” role and was pushing for his mother to return to live with him, urging my client to move out of the property. The gentleman I spoke to was of the mistaken view that he had been in a commonlaw husband/wife relationship and that, as it had been his home for 21 years, he had automatic rights.
It was quite upsetting for me to have to advise him that this was definitely not the case. Due to his particular circumstances, neither was I able to offer him any alternatives in making a financial claim under trustee laws. He took the news rather well, all things considered, and even called me “my dear”!
Towards the end of the conversation, he asked me what would be the situation had they married. I, of course, explained the significant differences as marriage brings with it certain legal rights, responsibilities and obligations. Unmarried couples living together do not have this, unless they have drawn up a living together agreement which can capture things like who owns what should they split, any joint assets that would need to be divided and what the arrangement are around any property in just one person's name. It could be, for instance, that one person is contributing towards the mortgage of their partner so it is agreed they would get a percentage of any sale value if they split up.
At this point, my client suddenly brought the conversation to an end, saying he was off to the hospital. It's not quite Valentine's Day but I was given the distinct impression that a proposal was in the air!
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm certainly not trying to advocate that everyone should hotfoot it down the aisle just to get their hands on each other's assets, so to speak, but either the law has to change in order to give cohabiting couples more automatic rights, or more effort needs to be made to ensure the general public are aware of their rights and what they can and cannot do to protect them in a relationship. The myth of the commonlaw husband or wife has to be the number one myth surrounding relationships in this country. It needs to be buried once and for all.
There are numerous options, such as the living together (cohabitee) agreement mentioned above, explaining more about the legal implications of marriage and things like pre-nuptial agreements if you are planning to marry but want to set out who gets what in the event of split.
If only I could persuade more people to take advice when in a happy relationship rather than when it has all gone wrong, life would be a lot better for many.