It’s common for many couples to live together, whether they plan to marry or with no intention of getting married in the future. It can be an exciting time, so it is no wonder that many couples just don’t think about what would happen if the relationship ends, or consider the legalities surrounding this new stage in their relationship.
It remains a common misconception that unmarried couples in the UK have the same legal rights as married couples when it comes to buying property or cohabiting. In practice, this means that one party can find they have little protection if the relationship breaks down. Regardless of how long you have been living together, you do not have the same rights or protections as a married couple.
There is no “common law” marriage recognised in law for those that have a relationship similar to a married couple. Under UK law when your relationship ends you cannot claim ownership of the other person’s property, or of a property that you bought together in the same way you would be able to if you were married.
It is important that you talk to your partner before moving in together, and that you make sure you continue to have open and honest discussions on a regular basis. Remember – people and relationships change over time so you may find that what worked at the start of your relationship may need to be adjusted down the road.
Some of the key considerations when buying a property, or moving in together as an unmarried couple are as follows:
If you are buying a property together
If you are buying a property together, the type of legal ownership of the property title will determine the rights and obligations during the relationship. It is also relevant if one of you were to die.
The two types of registered legal ownership of a property title, when buying a property together are:
Joint tenants: Here, each of you own equal shares of the property and have the same rights to keep or sell the property. If one of you dies, their share of the property automatically passes to the other person. This is known as the right of survivorship.
Tenants in common: Here, you can each own a particular share of the property equally, or you could own different percentages of the property. As you own your shares in the property as individuals then if one of you were to die your share of the property can pass to whoever you choose under your Will; unlike with Joint Tenants, it does not automatically pass to the other named owner.
A tenancy in common can (indeed should) be used to identify unequal contributions made to the purchase price; contributions towards the property after it has been purchased, for example paying for a substantive item that adds value to the property such as a conservatory or an extension; or to recognise the interest of a party who may have owned the property before the relationship began.
In the event of a separation, you will need to agree on what will happen to the property in that instance. Where this issue is in dispute – where one party wants to remain living in the property while the other wants to liquidate their share, or if there is an argument about the level of interest one owner has, you may end up in a costly legal dispute to resolve the issue. It is therefore important to consider these issues before buying a property with your partner.
Where one of you is contributing more towards the initial down payment, any mortgage payments, or maintenance of the property and you want that investment to be protected, then you should get advice on the appropriate legal documentation to put in place.
If you are moving into a property that belongs to one of you
If one of you is moving into a property that belongs to the other person, it is important to understand that you would have no automatic ownership rights over that property – even if you have made financial contributions towards the mortgage, or the maintenance of the property, or where you have lived there for many years.
Where a regular contribution towards the mortgage is expected, or envisaged, then you may want to consider how that contribution is to be made and if an interest in the property is expected as a result of that contribution. Equally, if a significant contribution to the development or maintenance of the property is to be made then you should consider putting together a legal agreement to protect that person’s investment or consider altering the ownership of the property to reflect that contribution.
In the event of a separation
Having regular discussions and putting the right legal documentation in place prior to cohabiting, or as your relationship changes, will help to avoid any nasty surprises or disagreements if you separate in the future.
It is also sensible to keep track of how much each of you contributes to mortgage payments and property maintenance costs. This will help to establish any financial interest in the property in the event of a dispute when you separate. Don’t be put off from getting legal advice – even if you have already moved in together it’s not too late to put in place the legal documentation to protect you both.
Talk to us
If you need any advice on your rights as a cohabiting couple, or want to understand more about protecting yourself or a financial investment, then do not hesitate to get in touch with our highly experienced family law team.
We are dedicated to resolving matters as amicably as possible and every solicitor in our family team are members of Resolution which means we have a duty to reduce conflict wherever possible.