What is ‘common law’ marriage? And what rights do unmarried couples really have?

What is ‘common law’ marriage? And what rights do unmarried couples really have?

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Nearly half of unmarried couples who live together wrongly believe they share the same rights as others who are married, according to a survey.

Some 46% of the public as a whole believe couples who live together share a ‘common law’ marriage – meaning they would have the same rights as a married couple, the British Social Attitudes Survey of people in England and Wales discovered.

According to the researchers, cohabiting couples account for the fastest growing type of household in England and Wales, so talkRADIO’s Julia Hartley-Brewer asked divorce lawyer Vanessa Lloyd Platt, what does this means for these couples?


'Mistaken belief' 

Ms Lloyd Platt described the National Centre for Social Research’s findings as “a huge concern”.

She told Hartley-Brewer: “It is a huge concern because it has been going on for years and years.

“We have nearly four million cohabiting couples in the country all under the mistaken belief that they have got rights.

“What is a common law husband or wife? It does not exist. The phrase was invented by the Daily Mail many years ago just to give status to people living together.

“You do not have rights just because you choose to live together. If you are in a common law situation, in a marriage you have rights – if you are not married, you do not.”

She added: "If you buy a property together and you are not married, if your name is not on the title you have an immediate problem.

"People think that just because you move in together and you start paying towards the bills that gives you rights – that does not necessarily.

“You don’t inherit if the other person dies – you do not automatically inherit their estate. People have no idea that is the case.”


Casual versus committed

When asked whether new documents need to be written up for unmarried couples, Ms Lloyd Platt said there was an agreement unmarried couples could enter into.

“What you can do is enter into a cohabitation agreement because the status of people living together is known as cohabitees," she said. 

“If you draw up an agreement you can obtain those rights but whether there should be imposed legislation is something that we have been fighting over for 40 years."

She added: “This debate has been going on for many years with the religious body in Parliament saying there is no way that we are going to change the law over cohabitation, if you want rights then get rights.

“That has been the case for many years and that injustices caused by this, particularly to women who have believed they were in a relationship that had rights has been untenable.”



Unmarried couples with children are able to make claims to some rights under the Children's Act but do not have the 'same security'. 

Ms Lloyd Platt added that unmarried couples with children could acquire some rights, but that they "did not have the same security" as married couples. 

"You can make claims under the Children’s Act for rights to have a home for yourself and the child but only while the child is [young]," she said. 

“It is like a trust where you have to give the house back when the child grows up so you do not have the same security and you don’t have the same status.

“It is time that people realised that so that these injustices can be dealt with by agreements that we can easily draw up.”