"Ideally, the law should reflect modern life and family lawyers have long pressed the government to introduce some level of rights for cohabiting couples, sadly, there’s no sign of that happening. Until it does, cohabiting couples need to remember there’s no such thing as a common law spouse and protect themselves accordingly."
- Kit O’Brien, family solicitor
The Bristol-based law firm claims that the named price comparison sites currently have over 22m combined visits each month, so by perpetuating this myth, users have been placed at a huge financial risk. Kit O’Brien, family solicitor, claims that this use of incorrect language could add to the potential pain and heartbreak if someone hadn’t purchased protection themselves because of a ‘mythical relationship status’.
“Throughout my career, I have spoken to numerous unmarried people following the breakdown of their cohabitating relationship who incorrectly believed they could make a claim arising out of that relationship,” O’Brien explained. Offering mortgages as a prime example, she highlighted that cohabitees may have contributed to mortgage payments on a property they didn’t legally own, believing it guaranteed them an interest.
Similarly, cohabitees may have invested capital into a property that was in their partner’s sole name. “While we may be able to establish that they have a beneficial interest in the property, it’s a costly process,” O’Brien confirmed.
In other cases, she’d seen people who’d thought they were entitled to maintenance because they were a ‘common law spouse’, only to then face severe financial difficulties when the only support available was for any children from that past relationship.
O’Brien felt that these misconceptions could lead to “real risk” for people making major financial decisions based on their belief of an “entirely mythical status,” since they’d be exposed to “significant amounts of financial insecurity and even litigation.” But “so long as insurance websites and companies perpetuate the myth, people will keep on believing it,” she concluded.
Discussing what family lawyers can do to reduce the risks posed by the ‘common law spouse’ myth, O’Brien suggests “regularly speak[ing] up to try and make the position clear,” especially since people will interact with price comparison sites more frequently than with solicitors.
According to recent Office of National Statistics (ONS) statistics, 290k people reported staying at a partner’s address for more than 30 days a year. Further research from Shakespeare Martineau has revealed that almost half of the people (47%) looking to buy a house believe that a status of common law spouse exists, with a further 20% of the difference in rights between married and unmarried couples.
Consequently, O’Brien suggests that a cohabitation agreement which sets out what will happen to joint and separate assets in the event of a break-up, should be seen as the top priority for all unmarried couples planning on moving in together. With this agreement in place, if a house is in one person’s name, or if children are involved, then both parties are protected, providing security, and safeguarding the future.
Although this may be an uncomfortable thought, O’Brien noted that “it’s important to consider all eventualities and arrange legal protection if something was to go wrong.”