Civil Partnerships for heterosexual couples; Cohabitation and the myth of the common law spouse

  • Posted

Judith Rouse

Solicitor & Associate

For many it appears that the law is out of sync with what is going on in the real world.

The nuclear family has evolved over the years. More couples cohabit, an increasing percentage separate then remarry or live with someone new.  Families are now made up of a wide range of relationships which has led to legal complications that were not considered when the main legislation about marriage and finances was created in the 70s.

From the beginning of December 2019 there is a new layer to be added – it will be possible for heterosexual couples to have a civil partnership registered.  There is now the possibility of confusion as people could think they are already entered in a civil partnership when in fact they are simply cohabiting and have not gone through the formalities.

First things first.  There is no such thing as a common law spouse. Unless a couple have gone through the correct formalities for marriage or a civil partnership they are simply cohabiting and there are no automatic rights for cohabiting couples.  This means that people have to look to various areas of the law to protect their interests when a relationship ends.  This can be complex and expensive.

With that in mind, it makes sense to think about the financial implications of living with someone and the effect this will have on other members of the family as well as business and family assets.

I say when, because there are potential pitfalls even when a couple live happily ever after.  One of that couple has to cope with the death of the other or support the other during ill health.  There could be legal problems even then.  Careful consideration should be given to the impact of any will you have (and the effect of not having one) not only on your partner but any children from a previous relationship as well as your pension and other assets.

Cohabitation agreements are not very common, yet – possibly because so many people believe they have “common law rights”.  There may be problems with enforceability but, at the very least, they are designed to help a couple think about their situation, discuss important issues and avoid misunderstandings.