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Family law  |  Unmarried Couples

Why do you need a cohabitation agreement?

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Walker Family Law
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Last week we wrote here about the importance of cohabitation agreements, explaining what they are, and whether they are legally binding. This week we look in a little more detail into why you need a cohabitation agreement if you are in, or are about to enter into, a cohabiting relationship.

Cohabitation agreements serve various purposes, primarily outlining arrangements for children, property, and finances in case of relationship breakdown. This can ensure that each party is reasonably provided for following the breakdown.

In 2021 there were about 3.6 million cohabitating couples in the UK. The outcome of a cohabiting relationship breakdown is crucial for numerous individuals annually.

So what does happen if there is no agreement?

Rights of cohabiting couples

No legal recognition of “common law marriage” grants cohabiting couples the same rights as married ones. It is a myth. No matter how long the couple have lived together, their relationship will never become a ‘common law marriage’.

Accordingly, when a cohabiting relationship breaks down neither party has a right to claim any financial support for themselves from the other party, as they would if they had been married. Therefore they cannot claim maintenance for themselves, and they cannot claim a share of the other party’s property, including their pension.

Essentially, the legal position is simply that each party will keep what is theirs. If one party solely owns the home they shared, they retain ownership following the relationship’s end. Only in certain limited circumstances will a non-owning party be able to claim a share of the property, usually where they have contributed towards the purchase of the property.

All of this can obviously mean that at the end of a relationship the non-owning party can be left both homeless and destitute, no matter how long the relationship lasted.

The custodial parent may seek financial support, potentially including housing, from the other party for the children’s welfare. This could mean that they can remain in the property, even if it belongs to the other party. However, the property will revert to the other party when the children grow up, again leaving the non-owning party homeless.

Real-world examples

To drive home the importance of entering into a cohabitation agreement, here are two real-world examples of what can happen on relationship breakdown if there is no cohabitation agreement.

Both examples are taken from research undertaken back in 2007 by the University of Bristol.

The first example came from a lady called ‘Frances’.

Frances and her partner met while they were both university students and started living together in their early twenties. They had four children together. After twenty years Frances decided to separate, due to her partner’s physical and emotional abuse. Frances obtained an injunction requiring her partner to leave the home.

Frances remained in the family home with the children, and obtained an order that they should reside with her.

The family home was owned solely by her partner, who also bought a second property, just prior to the separation.

At the time of the research Frances and three of the children were still living in the family home. The other child was living with her partner, in his second property.

Frances had not worked at all since having the children. Her partner, on the other hand, worked in the financial sector, and always brought in a high income.

We were told that Frances had accepted totally, “though with initial shock and dismay”, that she had no claim in her own right against either of her partner’s properties. She would only be able to remain in the family home during the children’s minority.

The second example came from a lady named ‘Helen’.

Helen and her partner began cohabiting, initially in her rented flat. Her partner then bought a derelict property, in his sole name. The couple then worked together doing major renovation works to the property. After a while they both moved in to the property.

During the three years they lived together, Helen paid an agreed sum into her partner’s bank account, as her share of the bills and mortgage.

The relationship broke down and Helen sought a financial settlement to recompense her for the work she had done to the property. But her partner refused to negotiate, and Helen eventually abandoned her claim, having spent £3,000 in legal costs.

The outcomes of both of these examples could have been so different if Frances and Helen had had a cohabitation agreement. 

How can we help?

For further information on how we can help, please see our Cohabitation agreements page.

Walker Family Law is an award-winning family law practice, recognised as one of the leading family law firms in the South West of England with services covering family law mediationdivorce lawchild-law and arbitration.

Please contact us if you require any further information.

For more information about cohabitation agreements and how we can help, see this page.