More and more people in England and Wales are choosing to live together without getting married - at the last count, there were over 4 million. Worryingly, many people believe that after a couple of years they become common law husband and wife, with the same rights as married couples. But this isn’t the case. As far as the law is concerned, common law marriage hasn't existed in England and Wales since 1753!
In fact, couples who live together have hardly any rights compared with married couples or civil partners. Many of them only find this out when it's too late to do anything about it: when their relationship has broken down or their partner has died.
So, what happens if you split up?
"I moved into my boyfriend's house 3 years ago. A year later, we had a baby girl. After she was born, we hit a bit of a rough patch and I started to worry that, if we split up, I'd be left looking after a baby with nowhere to live. I told my boyfriend I wanted him to put the house in both our names and, eventually, he did. We're fine now but I'm glad we did it anyway - in a funny way, it actually made us feel like more of a family."
- Your ex doesn’t have to pay you any maintenance for your own benefit, even if you've given up work to look after the kids or your home (although they will still have to pay child support for their children).
- If you rent your home and the tenancy is in your ex's name only, you will have no automatic right to stay if your ex asks you to leave or walks out.
- If your ex owns the home, and there's no other agreement or understanding in place, you will have no automatic right to stay if your ex asks you to leave.
- If there's no other agreement in place, your ex will walk away with all the savings and possessions they built up out of their own money. Where you bought things together but each contributed different amounts to the price, you own it in the shares in which you contributed.
And if your partner dies?
"My partner died completely unexpectedly. We'd been together for years but she was only in her forties. It was a total shock. There was more to come though. Maureen hadn't left a will. This meant that, technically, I wasn't entitled to anything she'd left behind. It all belonged to her relatives - even the house we'd lived in for the past 12 years. I thought I'd always got on with Maureen's family so I don't know what went wrong, but, over the next 18 months, I found myself in the middle of a legal battle with her parents, just to keep a roof over my head. It was without a doubt the worst 18 months of my whole life."
- If they haven't made a will, you won’t automatically inherit anything from them, including the family home if it's in their name or if you own it jointly as 'tenants in common'.
- You will not get any state bereavement benefit or a state pension based on a percentage of your ex's national insurance contributions, even if you had given up work to look after the kids or the family home and depended on your partner's income.
- If they have made a will and what you inherit is worth more than £312,000 (for 2008-9), you will have to pay inheritance tax.
But, there are ways to protect yourself and the family, no matter what the future brings...
Advicenow's Top Tips
- If you're renting a new place together, think about putting both names on the tenancy. It's probably not worth ending an existing tenancy as this may mean you lose other rights, but bear it in mind when you're next signing a new tenancy.
- If you're buying a new place together, or moving into a home your partner already owns, think carefully about how you want to own it. Choosing between owning it in one person’s name, as 'joint tenants', or as ‘tenants in common’ will make a massive difference to your rights. Get advice from a solicitor. Download our guide to Housing and LivingTogether (350 KB) for more information.
- Make a will – even if you haven’t got very much to leave at the moment. Without one all your property and assets will automatically pass to your blood relations. Your partner will not be entitled to anything – which is probably not what you want. Download our guide to Wills and LivingTogether (534 KB) for more information.
- Make a Living Together Agreement. It helps you decide what you will each contribute and is a record of what you agreed. If you split up, it can help you do it as amicably and as fairly as possible. Download our guide to making a Living Together Agreement (312 KB).
What if you are a same sex couple?
In almost all areas of the law same-sex couples now have the same rights as other cohabiting couples. The information contained throughout this site applies to same-sex couples too - where there are differences that might affect you, we spell it out.
- If you're an unmarried father, make sure you have parental responsibility for your kids. Download our guide to Parental Responsibility for fathers (77 KB).
- If you are part of a gay or lesbian couple or if you are a step-parent, you may want to make sure you have parental responsibility too. Go to our Children section for more details.
- Check your pension scheme - some don’t pay survivor’s benefits to unmarried partners. Think about how you can build up separate pensions for each of you. For more detail download our guide to Pensions and LivingTogether (426 KB)
Go to the LivingTogether section for more detail.
Want to know more about the campaign? See About LivingTogether.
The information on these pages applies to England and Wales only. The law in Scotland and Northern Ireland is significantly different.