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Cohabitation disputes & legal rights

What happens if things go wrong and what rights do unmarried couples have? Do I have rights as a "common law husband" or "common law wife"?

There are so many issues which arise when a relationship ends, and it is often hard to keep on top of all the different decisions which will need to be made. These days, more couples than ever are bringing assets such as properties with them into a relationship but have no real idea what will happen if the relationship ends.

“What is a common law partner entitled to”, “Am I entitled to half the house if we are not married”, these are some of the questions that family lawyers at Woolley & Co are most commonly asked by cohabiting couples who are separating, or when problems arise.

The section below should help you navigate through your uncertainties if you are separating from an unmarried partner.

What if my common law partner won’t leave our shared property?

If you have not entered into a formal agreement (Cohabitation Agreement) then much will depend on how the property is owned, or rented. If it is in joint names, then chances are that you won’t be able to force them to go easily in the short term. If things have deteriorated badly, and there is any aggression from your estranged partner, then this makes the situation very different – contact us straight away to discuss possible emergency remedies.

Am I entitled to half the house if we’re not married?

The first thing to understand is that there is no such thing as a “common law husband” or “common law wife”spouse, and the laws protecting cohabiting couples are nowhere near as comprehensive as matrimonial laws.

Normally the most significant asset is the house that you live in. The starting point is always to consider whose names are on the deeds to the property – but this is only the starting point. There are some circumstances which may allow you to claim an interest in your former partner’s home, for example if it is the family home for children, or if you have paid towards it – but this is a complicated area of law and it is very important to get some advice on your situation.

If the home is owned in your former partner’s sole name, there may be steps which can be taken to register a potential interest for you at the Land Registry and protect any rights you may have. If you are just starting out and are buying a home together for the first time, then you should take some advice now about how the property should be owned, as this may help prevent arguments later. A cohabitation agreement can help to clarify who will (or won’t) have an interest in the equity in the home.

What are my rights if my partner leaves, but stops paying the bills?

The starting point is to consider whose name the bills are in. If your partner has left and has taken their name off the utility bills, then you will only be able to pursue them for maintenance to help pay these if you were married to each other. The only other maintenance which will be available regardless of whether you were married will be for children. However, this is worked out according to a national calculation, which has no relevance to how much the bills are.

What about the contents of the house?

If you were not married to each other, then the basic rule is that each item belongs to whoever paid for it. This can lead to exhaustive battles to produce lists and receipts for items. However, you may both agree that it would only be right for example, that whoever any children live with should have the use of the majority of items.

What about the children if you separate but aren’t married?

The law is designed to protect children and therefore when an unmarried couple separate the concern will be for the welfare of any children of the relationship. If a couple cannot agree about where their children will live and contact arrangements the court can be asked to consider the case and make a judgement. In an ideal world however, parents should try and plan and come to an agreement between themselves. If they cannot an application can be made to the courts for a Child Arrangement Order, which will set out living, care and contact arrangements for the child.

A couple should try to agree amongst themselves how they will both financially support their children once they separate but if an agreement cannot be reached you can appeal to the court to decide.

Need further advice?

Call Woolley & Co on 0800 321 3832 or book a free initial telephone appointment with one of our lawyers.

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