How to understand your rights in marriage or as a couple living together. And why it is important.

hazel wright

Hazel Wright, Solicitor and Mediator
Trustee of Tavistock Relationships

For many of us cohabitation (living together) is a very natural state of being in the world today.

Finding out more about each other by sharing each other's living arrangements seems common sense. Additionally many opt to cohabit and ‘commit' together without considering marriage at all.

But there are important legal ramifications about these decisions that may come as a surprise.

Why it’s important to know your rights as a couple living together

Living together is common practice today. Many couples see living together as a way to get to know each other better or deepen their relationship. Some even choose to commit to a life together without considering marriage at all. It may seem logical that these couples are “married” in the eyes of the law, and have the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. But this isn’t the case.

Common law marriage doesn’t exist

In the past, the legal concept of “common law” marriage protected the rights of individuals living together. The government abolished this law in 1753. However, unmarried couples living together or in a civil partnership are the fastest growing household in the U.K. today.
6.1 million couples live together with no legally binding contract
The number of unmarried couples with children has more than doubled in the last 10 years. It now stands at around 6.1 million. Many of these are young couples.

Forming a commitment is important in the eyes of the law

A recent British Social Attitudes Survey* shows that 46% of those surveyed believe common law marriage is legally binding. Of these, 55% are households with children, and 41% without children. Fewer single people believed this to be the case. 49% of people who described themselves as religious believed it, compared to 44% who didn’t. The survey shows that many people are unaware that marriages not registered as civil partnerships are not legally valid.

Having no registered civil marriage affects your rights in a breakup

If you’re living together, you will have different rights as an individual as someone who has registered a civil partnership. This matters most when relationships break down. If you’re in a civil partnership, the law will help you establish a new legal position and divide your assets fairly. However, if you’re unmarried, the only law you can fall back on are the laws of property ownership or trusts. These are fairly inflexible. The choices you make during your relationship about getting married, entering a civil partnership or doing neither will affect your legal rights if the relationship breaks down.

It’s important to talk openly to your partner about your decisions

A large proportion of the adult British public are in a relationship but not married. If you’re in a committed relationship, take the time to talk to your partner about the decision you’re making. Discuss how you may deal with the challenge of having less legal protection in the future.

The benefits system keeps some of your rights alive

The benefits system keeps some rights alive for legal recognition of living together as common law marriage. The H.M. Revenue and customs define couples as “Those who live in the same household and are either married, civil partners or living together as if they are married.” Universal Credit rules do not distinguish between legally binding marriage and couples that live together.

Know your rights in your relationship

It may seem pessimistic to be thinking of how things could go wrong while you’re happy in your relationship. However, it’s best to know your rights in living together, marriage and civil partnerships so you‘re prepared for the future.
Breakups are always hard emotionally, but if you have no legal rights, it may mean added financial stress, leaving a home or returning to work unexpectedly.

If you need support, it helps to talk to a professional

If you’re experiencing relationship problems, it often helps to talk to a professional. Therapy can provide a safe space for you and your partner to explore your relationship. If you are separating or divorced, help is available. See Tavistock’s Divorce and Separation Service here.