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Myth of common law marriage persists

Despite recent efforts to engage the public on the subject, a large proportion of people still believe that cohabitation gives couples similar legal status to married people – the so-called myth of common-law marriage.

Couples who live together outside of marriage do, of course, have some legal protections, but many assume that they will be treated more or less the same under the law as married couples. This is not the case, which can have serious implications further down the line – particularly if a couple decides to split up, or if one of them dies.

Since the 1980s more couples have chosen to live together first, rather than only move in when they marry, and cohabitation is now by far the most common form of first live-in relationship. More than 3 million couples live together, though there are still many more married couples in total (around 12.5 million).

There is a series of legal issues that may be faced by cohabiting partners, some of which have been the subject of high-profile cases in the past few years. Nevertheless, many couples are unaware of how they may be affected. Some specific issues include the fact that there is no automatic right to ownership of each other’s property if the relationship breaks down; that if one partner dies the other has no automatic right to inherit their estate; and that they are not guaranteed a State Pension based on the other’s payments.

Sharon McKie, family law solicitor with Atherton Godfrey, commented: “The area has been a controversial one, with some campaigners trying to get the law changed for cohabitees. This

has so far been unsuccessful, and perhaps reflects the diverse reasons that people live together. In many cases, it is because they want a less formal type of relationship, without some of the legal implications of marriage. However, long-term cohabitees in particular are urged to understand the law and their rights in the event of death or separation.”

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