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The myth of the common law spouse

As lawyers we are often surprised when meeting a new client for the first time, to find that they are under the illusion that because they have lived with their partner for a number of years, they have gained the status of ’common law spouse’. Time and again we have to deliver the unpalatable news that there is no such thing. The law which protects married couples is very different from the law governing cohabiting relationships. When you consider that almost six million people in the UK are cohabiting, the potential impact of this common misunderstanding is huge.

It is understandable that people don’t consider the potential problems of a relationship breakdown when they first live together. However, this is exactly the time that they should be thinking about it. Putting in place what can be a relatively simple agreement, setting out what should happen to their property if the worst happens and their relationship ends, can save a great deal of heartache and expense later on.

Public policy could mean that cohabiting couples may not be afforded the same rights and protection as married couples for quite some time, if ever. The law can take a long time to catch up with changes in society, and while many individuals may feel it’s wrong to be pushed towards marriage just to achieve legal protection, it’s important that they enter into cohabitation with their eyes wide open, having considered all the issues involved.

Though it may not seem like the most romantic gesture in the world, getting legal advice before living together and setting out your intentions in a written agreement could well avoid bitterness and acrimony, not to mention considerable expense, if the relationship should ever come to an end.