According to the Office for National Statistics, cohabitating couple families continue to be the fastest growing family type in the UK, currently making up 3.3 million families. Despite this obvious upward trend taking place over the last 20 years, the law is struggling to keep up and currently offers very little protection for cohabiting couples.

It is a common misconception that after an extended period of time living together, you are effectively classed as a “common law” husband and wife, and therefore have equal or equivalent rights as to those couples legally married. This is not the case and there is no such thing as a common law husband or wife. Couples that have been together for many years are often surprised by this and further surprised when they discover what they are legally entitled to on separation.

Unlike with a marriage, there is no entitlement to a claim against your partner’s (or former partner’s) pension. It may also be the case that if there is property that is owned in one person’s sole name, the other partner is unable to make a claim against this as an unmarried ex partner. The situation does not become clearer for shorter relationships. Consider the current economic climate and the ability for ‘teens’ and ‘twenty-somethings’ to purchase a property for themselves, either jointly or independently. It is often not possible without some form of assistance, either from the government Help-To-Buy schemes or from the ‘Bank of Mum & Dad.’ In the event of a relationship breakdown after assistance from the government or parents, it can be extremely difficult for people to untangle the potential claims that each person may have.

There are even examples where people purchase property in their sole names, prior to entering into a relationship, subsequently form a relationship and invite their partner to live with them, only to find that by doing so they have effectively ‘given up’ some of the equity in that property. Such instances are rare but it is important to distinguish what claims your partner may have in the event of the relationship breaking down in the future.

Purchasing a property, either jointly with someone else or independently, is generally considered the biggest financial commitment one can make during their lifetime. Equally, the responsibility of paying towards a mortgage is an obligation that cannot be taken lightly and one which many people misunderstand.

The most effective way to ensure your rights and interests are protected is to contact a family lawyer either before, during or shortly after the purchase of a property (but preferably before). Family lawyers can not only discuss and explain the implications in the event of a future relationship breakdown but they can also advise you on steps to take to avoid uncertainty in the future. This may take the form of a cohabitation agreement, a declaration of trust or a combination of the two. These documents can contain formal recognition of the contributions made by the couple (and possibly the ‘Bank of Mum & Dad’), the intention of the couple in the event of the relationship ending, the obligations towards the property (such as payment of the mortgage) or various other aspects of co-ownership.

The exposure to risk when purchasing a property jointly with someone or inviting another person to live with you as a family cannot be understated. Cases involving property disputes can often cost people tens of thousands of pounds. These expenses can potentially be avoided by seeking advice from the outset and spending a fraction of this on appropriate legal advice.