Recent statistics released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the number of unmarried couples moving in together and cohabiting has increased from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million in 2016. Cohabiting couples now account for over 17.5% of all families in the UK.
Of these many families, a vast number of them have grown accustomed to believing that the longer they live together, the more rights they have - and tend to refer to their relationship as a common law marriage.
However, despite this popular belief, under English law there is no such thing as a common law marriage! Cohabitation raises no general legal status for a couple, unlike marriage and civil partnerships.
Unmarried couples and cohabitees have no guaranteed rights to ownership of each other's property if they separate or if a partner passes away. This remains the case no matter how long the relationship and even if they have children together - there is no automatic right to any financial relief or division of assets.
We have had many clients who have approached us after having lived together with their partner for many years, even decades, and seek legal advice on obtaining a share of a property or assets on separation - only to find that they have little to no rights despite the length of their relationship.
I am not married - what happens to property and assets if we separate?
Each of you will only be entitled to what you legally own and you would not be entitled to claim financial relief from your partner.
If a property is in one partner's sole name, only that partner will have a legal interest in the property and you will need to demonstrate that there has been an agreement or intention between both of you that you will receive a share of the property, or be compensated for any contributions. If no agreement can be reached this can lead to costly and contested court proceedings.
If a property is in joint names, legally you are entitled to a share of the equity in accordance with how you hold the title of the property. If there is no agreement between you to sell a property or if the title deed does not reflect your agreed intentions for the division of equity you will need to pursue a court application and for the court to decide on the sale and split of equity.
What about the children?
Mothers will always have parental responsibility for their children. However, unmarried father's will only have parental responsibility for their children if they are registered on the birth certificate for children born from 1 December 2003.
Parental responsibility allows parents to be consulted, and for their consent to be obtained, in respect of major decisions in a child's upbringing - such as health issues, education, change of name and religion.
If parents separate, the main carer can seek child maintenance from a non-resident parent and this can be sought either by agreement between the parents or through the Child Maintenance Service. The legal obligation will be calculated based on the non-resident parent's gross taxable income and how often the children stay overnight with the non-resident parent.
In some circumstances a main carer for the children can pursue a court application for lump sum payments or property provision for the benefit of a child or, if the non-resident parent is on a very high salary, an application for a "top-up" child maintenance amount to be ordered in addition to the standard child maintenance payments.
What happens if my partner dies?
If there is no will in place and you are unmarried, you will have no automatic rights of inheritance from your partner's estate.
There are certain circumstances that you may be entitled to seek reasonable financial provision from your partner's estate - but you will likely be involved in contested proceedings against your partner's parents, children or other relatives.
It is therefore always advisable to have a will in place and we can assist you to ensure there is one in place.
What do I do now?
If you are thinking of moving in with your partner, or purchasing a property together we would strongly recommend you seek expert legal advice from an expert cohabitation solicitor to protect your interest and any contributions. In many circumstances, all that will be required is a detailed deed of trust or cohabitation agreement to secure a legal interest and protect your rights.