As part of Cohabitation Awareness Week, I highlighted yesterday the key differences in how the law treats married and unmarried couples upon separation.
Cohabitees do not have the same legal rights to property, inheritance or pensions as their married counterparts and whilst various steps can be taken to mitigate this shortfall, it will take a change in the law to provide proper protection to this growing section of society.
So, until then, what can be done?
Specialist Resolution accredited family solicitors, like me, are here to provide advice on the action available before, during and after cohabitation, to resolve matters fairly if the relationship breaks down.
Perhaps the most important time to seek help is right at the beginning of your relationship, when you are planning to set up home with a partner. It might not be very romantic, but serious consideration should be given to a Cohabitation Agreement, particularly if the property you intend to live in is owned by only one of you.
A Cohabitation Agreement sets out each party’s intentions. Who is paying the bills? Who will pay the mortgage and if the property is in just one name, will the other be entitled to a share? Will that change if or when you have children?
The document can cover all of these points and provide strong evidence to support any application to the court, in the event there is ever a relationship breakdown. It is always better to know what you are getting into and talk openly and frankly about what you understand or intend to be the consequences of living together.
In some circumstances, a Declaration of Trust is also suitable. If the property you live in is owned by just one of you for some reason, but you agree the other party is entitled to a share, then this document sets out clearly how that proportion will be calculated. It is legally binding, enforceable and provides protection for the non-owning party.
So how do you address the issue of inheritance, should one of you die before the other?
We cannot change the law, but working with our expert probate colleagues, we can help you reach an agreement about what provision you both want to make for the other by drawing up a suitable will. We might also refer you to a financial adviser for information about issues such as life insurance policies that could help the surviving partner in the event of a death.
What about pensions?
As I explained in my previous blog, irrespective of how long you have lived together, you are not allowed to apply to the court for a Pension Sharing Order, in the event your relationship breaks down. Unfortunately, no agreement can be put in place to change that fact, but it may well be other steps can be taken, such as nominating your partner to receive your death benefits if your pension scheme allows.
There are a number of things we can do to plug the gap in the law for cohabiting couples, but they are no substitute for regulatory change, hence the importance of Cohabitation Awareness Week. In the meantime, we can at least provide some measure of protection, should you separate or one of you dies.
When you plan to move in with a partner, you really need to understand your responsibilities, particularly if one of you intends to stop work to raise children. Only by preparing for the worst, can you provide security and certainty for everyone.
To find out more about the rights of unmarried couples, contact our family law department on (0114) 218 4000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.