Where the couple was married or in a civil partnership (in the case of a same sex relationship) the law provides extensive powers to sort out the financial affairs in a fair way. In those cases it does not matter very much which partner owns the property or earns the money. A court is able to redistribute the assets and income in a way which is fair according to the facts of each relationship.
But what if the couple was not married or in a civil partnership? In England and Wales there has been no way of informally acquiring the status of man and wife since the mid-18th Century at the latest. Despite that fact it is astonishing how many people think that once they have been living together ‘as man and wife’ for a couple of years or so, they acquire rights to the other’s property and income by way of a concept they tend to refer to as ‘common law marriage’. As a specialist barrister working in family law for approaching two decades I have often been amazed to hear this belief expressed by people who I would have assumed are educated and intelligent enough to know better. There is no such thing as common law marriage in English law. The simple fact is that when it comes to property ownership and rights to financial support the law in England and Wales basically treats two unmarried people who have lived together as a family in much the same way as it would two strangers who had a business relationship with each other.
This can lead to very expensive court disputes and, in many of them, very hard outcomes. Someone who moves into another’s house and lives there for many years, being a dutiful and loving partner, helping with the housework, helping with the family finances etc can find when the relationship ends that they have no easy claim for financial support from their partner. This is hard for people to take and it is, in some ways, an odd situation the law has allowed to continue. For example, where a woman has lived with a man for two years and the man is killed in an accident which is someone else’s fault, the woman is able to claim damages against the person who caused the accident for the financial loss caused to her by the death of the partner she was financial dependant on. That has been the case under the Fatal Accidents Act for several decades now. In a similar way, if someone you have lived with for at least two years dies and leaves no reasonable financial provision for you in their will, the court can be asked to consider effectively rewriting their will after their death to benefit you. That has been the law since the 1970s. So someone who loses their partner by death is potentially much better off than someone who has their partner of many years throw them out of their home. Where there are children concerned, there are legal powers under which the court may be able to help. But if there are no children, obtaining financial support can be very difficult. Although there is talk of changing the law, it is unlikely to happen for years to come.
So, unromantic though it seems, any couple embarking on a long-term relationship but not planning to marry would be well advised to sit down at an early stage and consider drawing up a living together agreement (also known as a cohabitation agreement). Such an agreement can set out how your financial affairs will be run during the marriage and, critically, what you intend to happen if you separate at some point in the future. It is similar to a pre-nuptial agreement prior to a marriage, but potentially even more important because without marriage there is no divorce procedure which includes a careful consideration of financial issues within it. It is also important to review such an agreement at regular intervals because as time goes on circumstances change. Many modern couples see such an agreement as a useful part of life: like annual health checks or MOTs for cars. It is an opportunity to check that everything is still alright.
But before you sit down over the kitchen table to thrash out a living together agreement, do not underestimate how technical things can get. In most cases the drafting of an agreement is best left to an experienced lawyer. It is also important that both sides take independent legal advice before signing an agreement. This may not cost as much as you think. A specialist family lawyer, solicitor or direct access barrister, is likely to provide the drafting of the agreement and advice on it quickly and at a price which is very competitive bearing in mind the level of expertise you will be receiving. Compared to the costs of court proceedings sorting out the financial arrangements at the end of a long cohabiting relationship where there was no living together agreement, the costs of making such an agreement are small beer indeed!