In a single sentence, hardly any. In spite of the fact there are now more than 3.3 million cohabiting families in the UK there is still no law that gives unmarried couples the same legal protections as those who are married if they separate.
The Cohabitation Rights Bill which was introduced by Lord Marks of Henley to the House of Lords last year is still far from being enacted. The Bill sought to protect the rights of same sex couples too, as well as those who had been living together for three years.
So, on the basis that even more couples than ever are probably living together following the complexities thrown at us this year due to Covid-19, what can you do to protect yourself? Or what can you do if you have been living together for some time, but are now thinking of separating?
We’ll come back to some of the options in later blogs. In the meantime let’s consider what to do if you’ve bought your house together. In the vast majority of cases the law falls back on principles of property and trust law which are far more restrictive.
Buying a property together
Unless only one person is meeting all of the costs of the property, including any mortgage payments, the majority of unmarried cohabitants will either buy their home as joint tenants or tenants in common in specified shares. Joint tenants will have equal rights to the entire property and, upon death, the property automatically passes to the survivor outside of any Will. Tenants in common will own the property in specified shares and can pass their share of the property under the terms of their Will.
People buying a property together do so usually when their relationship is happy and you may think that it is perfectly fine to own it either as joint tenants or tenants in common in equal shares, but you need to think about what you would want to happen in the event your relationship doesn’t last and the property needs to be sold.
If you are putting in a greater proportion of the purchase price or paying more of the mortgage, you may want the sale proceeds to be distributed according to your financial contributions. If you are paying 75% of the cost of the property then you may well think it fair that you should receive 75%of the sale proceeds if the property is sold.
However, if the property has been bought as joint tenants or tenants in common in equal shares, then the presumption is that you would only receive half. It is extremely difficult to go beyond that presumption and there needs to be compelling evidence to be able to do so from a legal perspective.
Just because you may be making a greater financial contribution there may be other factors you may want to take into account, for example if you have children together or if one of you pays the mortgage and the other pays all other household expenditure.
However you arrange your family finances, you need to try to agree what you think would be fair if the relationship doesn’t last. It isn’t sensible to say that you will own your home 50/50 and hope for the best. The relationship may endure or it may be long-lived and you may feel that at the end of it that an equal division is fair, but what if it only lasts a matter of months or no more than a few years. Would you feel then that an equal division is fair if you have made different contributions?
The conversation with your partner can be a tricky one at a time when the relationship is in good shape. In simple cases it may be enough to have a ‘Declaration of Trust’ or a ‘Cohabitation Agreement’ stating how you own your home and the percentages.
In more complicated situations, for example where there are children from previous relationships, you may want to consider having a more detailed cohabitation agreement. For older people there will be other aspects to consider and any agreement may need to tie in with your inheritance planning.
It doesn’t need to be an expensive process but seeking a solicitor’s guidance if you’re in a relationship without being married, could be the best move you make in a very complicated year.
If you would like to have an initial discussion about your legal rights please contact me, Victoria Maxwell, at Bishop and Sewell on email firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone 020 7091 2707.
The above is accurate as at 25 August 2020. The information above may be subject to change during these ever-changing times.
The content of this note should not be considered legal advice and each matter should be considered on a case by case basis.