Bishop & Sewell

Family lawyers have to explain every day to unmarried cohabitants that they don’t have the same rights as married people if their relationship breaks down. Despite campaigns to try to debunk the myth of the common-law spouse, it seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey shows that 46% of people wrongly think that living together in England and Wales gives them the same legal status as if they were married. This is only a 1% drop from the figure in 2005. The detailed analysis shows that this rose to 55% of households who have children.

In 2017 there were 3.3 million cohabiting families, a figure which has more than doubled in the last 20 years.

Common-law spouse

This isn’t just people thinking that they may have the right to make some sort of claim on a relationship breakdown, they believe that they have the same potential financial claims as if they were married. Many countries afford unmarried cohabitants rights on relationship breakdown once they have lived together for a number of years, but England and Wales does not..

If a relationship breaks down claims can only be made under property and trust law, or if there are children, claims may be made on behalf of the child. In simple terms, if there is a dispute, the court will look at how the property is owned. Sometimes that will be the end of the matter, although in some cases it is possible to look at financial contributions to the property, but no other contributions to the relationship. If there are children, it is possible to make a claim on their behalf, but any capital that is provided for housing will revert back to the person who provided the money when the children finish education.

Unless and until there is a change in the law Family lawyers will have to keep on trying to educate and explain that there is no concept of a common-law spouse, but despite our best efforts, it seems few people are listening.

If you need expert advice on divorce or family relationship issues more widely, please contact Philip in our Family & Divorce team. Alternatively, you can email or call 020 7631 4141.

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