Rights for Unmarried Couples
What You Need to Know
- There are more than four million unmarried couples living together in the UK, many of who do not realise the limits of their rights.
- There is no such thing in English law as a ‘common law’ wife or husband. Cohabiting couples and their families have far fewer rights than people who are married or in a civil partnership.
- For example, unmarried couples have no rights to their partner’s property if they split up.
- In such a couple, only the mother has an automatic parental repsonsibility to the children, unless the father registers the birth jointly with the mother.
- Whilst there is no inheritance tax to be paid on anything bequeathed between a married couple, this is not true for unmarried partners.
Living Together Vs Marriage
More and more people are choosing to live together, buy property together and have children without getting married. In fact, according to official statistics, there are more than four million couples living together in England and Wales alone. But what happens if these couples split up? While unmarried parents are involved in three out of four family breakdowns, this huge social shift has not been followed by any significant changes in the law.
Note that there is no such thing in English law as a ‘common law wife’ (or husband). Many couples wrongly believe that they will automatically qualify for some protection under the law if their relationship breaks down. But their relationship with one another is not recognised as having any legal standing, and they have no special status in the eyes of the English legal system. The law effectively treats them as separate individuals with no rights or liabilities to each other if the relationship ends.
For such couples, this has far-reaching consequences for their home, their children and their finances, though there are certain measures you can take to minimise financial and legal problems if you and your partner end up separating.
Unlike married couples, unmarried couples have no basic rights to their partner's property or to maintenance if they split up. Basically what is his is his, what is hers is hers, and what is jointly-owned needs to be divided.
If a house is bought in joint names, it should be split accordingly on separation, and either party can force a sale of the property to realise their share. If the parties are contributing unequally to the purchase price, or to payments on the property, for example if he is paying 70% and she is paying 30%, this should be reflected in the amounts they take away with them.
If the property is in the sole name of one party, it remains that person's property on separation, unless the other party can establish that there was an intention that they would be entitled to a share in the property. Proving this can cause much stress, expense and frustration.
The mother is the only adult who has any automatic rights in respect of the couple’s children. She alone will have parental responsibility for them, which covers all aspects of their welfare and upbringing. However since December 2003 an unmarried father can acquire similar rights if he registers the birth of the child jointly with the mother.
If an unmarried couple split up, the mother will automatically have the right to look after her child, and the father could not challenge her unless they have entered into a Parental Responsibility Agreement or he has a court order in his favour.
If one of the couple dies intestate, i.e. without having made a will, their estate will pass to their immediate family (except their house if they own it together).
An unmarried partner will not even be entitled to administer the deceased partner's estate, as they are not related.
Unmarried couples have no rights to each other’s pension if one of them dies, and for inheritance tax purposes the taxman treats them as individuals even if they have been together for years and hold their assets in joint names. While there is no inheritance tax between husband and wife, if one unmarried partner dies, all their estate above £325,000 will be taxed at a rate of 40% (with the inheritance tax threshold correct as of 2012).
- For more information on your rights as part of a married couple, a cohabiting couple or a civil partnership, visit DirectGov.
- The fatherhood institute has more about the ins and outs of legal parental responsibility.
- Read our guide to writing a will and make sure your loved ones will be provided for should you pass away.