Separating from an unmarried partner

Advice  |   30 September 2013

With three million unmarried couples now living together in England and Wales, there are urgent calls for a reform in English law to offer them the same level of protection as married couples, in line with Scotland, Canada and Australia.

Under current English law, if you live with your partner and then you separate, you have to divide your assets according to their legal ownership. You have no automatic rights to a share of the family home, savings, investments, pensions, business interests or other personal belongings, unless they are held in joint names.

In the situation where one partner has stayed at home to look after the children, while the other goes out to work, it can come as a shock that you may have no statutory entitlement to assets, such as your home.

An unmarried partner would have to make an application to the court, which would be decided on your level of contributions to the purchase and your intentions. This is often extremely difficult to evidence without a written agreement.

Where there are children, the courts can offer limited protection to ensure there is adequate housing provision for the children whilst they are minors. Any lump sum or property awarded may have to be repaid once the children are over eighteen.

The only way for unmarried couples to secure their property rights and intentions is to make a written agreement. Cohabitation agreements, as they are known, are legally binding in England and Wales and virtually impossible to set aside. They should be drawn up after each person has taken independent legal advice.

As unmarried couples have no automatic right to inherit from their partner if they die, or cannot claim exemption from inheritance tax in the same way as a married couple. You should also remember to make a will. This is especially important if you have been married before.

For more information contact Paul Antoniou.