Recently the case of Joy Williams made the news headlines. The 69-year-old grandmother lived with dentist Norman Martin for 18 years after he split with his wife, Maureen. But Mr Martin never divorced, nor did he update his Will, so when he died of a heart attack four years ago, his half share of the £320,000 three-bedroom bungalow in Dorchester, Dorset, went to Mrs Martin – despite leaving her in 1994 to start living with Ms Williams.

The couple owned their property as ‘tenants in common’, a form of ownership which does not allow one party to inherit from the other. So when he died, the wife, not Mrs Williams, became his legal heir. Mrs Williams faced losing her home as she could not afford to buy out Mrs Martin.

Mrs Martin contested the case, but the court ruled in favour of Ms Williams, the Judge said her award for “reasonable financial provision” against her partner’s estate, which she made under inheritance law, was “a fair and reasonable result”.

To be successful, Ms Williams had to establish that for two years up to 25 June 2012, when Mr Martin died aged 69, she had lived in the same household as him as his wife, or that immediately before his death she was being maintained either “wholly or partly” by him. 

Mrs Martin contested the claim saying that she had at all times remained his wife and rejected any suggestion that she and her husband were “estranged”. Mrs Martin is now faced with a bill for legal costs thought to exceed £100,000, a sum she described as an eye-watering amount, money which she says she does not have.

Ms Williams’ advice to the many other people living with partners, to whom they are not married, is sound: “I hope my situation raises awareness for others to consider their own financial position in relation to their partner and consider whether they need to take advice to protect each other in future.”

High property prices and fragmented families have led to a boom in inheritance disputes. Mrs Williams’s story is not as unusual as it seems. In 2015 news headlines were generated about the case of Dr Christine Gill, a 58-year-old mother and academic, who successfully went to court to try to reclaim some of the £2.3 million estate her parents had left to the RSPCA, even though Gill had abandoned her career to carry out thousands of (unpaid) hours of work on the farm and then, later, to care for her mother. 

This case is far from unusual, but highlights the idea of a common law husband or wife was currently an “urban myth”. The simple truth is that, ordinarily, cohabitees have no clearly defined legal rights to financial provision if their partner leaves them – even after decades – and no right to inherit if their partner dies. Couples considering moving in together without getting married should set up a cohabitation agreement, a legally binding document that outlines who owns property, how household bills are divided and maintenance payments for children. Couples should also ensure their Wills are up to date. If the Wills in the Williams case had been updated, the matter would not have needed to go to court.


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