Cohabiting couples (people who live together without being married or in a civil partnership) make up the second largest family type in the UK at 3.3 million families.
They are also the fastest-growing type of family in the UK with the numbers having more than doubled from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million in 2017 according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures. When people talk about living together or cohabiting there is often talk of ‘common law husband and wife’.
This is a myth; there is no such thing as ‘common law husband and wife’ When a living-together relationship ends, ownership of any assets is decided by property law rather than divided up in accordance with family law as with divorcing couples. If there are children then there may also be the possibility of limited claims on behalf of the children while they are minors but it is still very different from the potential spousal maintenance, property and pension sharing claims available on the breakdown of a marriage.
The common law myth
The myth of the common law wife runs deep not helped by insurance and other company websites still having an option for marital status as “common law wife/husband”. Indeed, some figures indicate that more than 50% of adults in this country believe that cohabiting couples have the same rights or at least some rights akin to marriage after a specified period together (although the length of time people think necessary to acquire these fictitious rights also varies wildly).
The law when trying to deal with property ownership disputes on the breakdown of a relationship is complex with evidence often hampered by strong emotions. As a result, any legal action can be protracted and expensive. It is therefore sensible to know your position from the outset by seeking specialist advice. It may also be helpful to enter into a Cohabitation Agreement that regulates the ownership of property during and at the end of a relationship in order to pre-empt any potential issues later down the line.