If you’ve ever done a car insurance quote online, you will be asked about your marital status. Skipping past the common or garden “single” or “married” options, there is usually a fantastically mythical creature known as the “common law spouse”. Not quite so exotic as a unicorn, the common law spouse is a far more dangerous beast. Why? Simply put, it lulls unmarried couples into a false sense of security. We’re going to examine what happens on the death of a cohabitee, just one of the confusing myths of the common law spouse that has much wider consequences for unmarried couples.
Many couples assume that if they have been living together (or “cohabiting”) then they will benefit from their partner’s estate if the partner dies. In fact, the law does not recognise a cohabitee, or a common law spouse, no matter how long the relationship. Nor does having children together make a difference. Being a “common law spouse” has no legal status and offers absolutely no protection. With unmarried couples outnumbering married couples in the UK – and with most people in the UK without a will – this is a significant problem.
Without wills in place, many cohabiting couples are putting their partners in a potentially very difficult situation. The intestacy rules govern what happens when a person dies without a will, and they ignore the position of a common law spouse. This means that bereaved partners could be left with no financial security, nor any funds to continue paying the mortgage or ongoing living expenses.
The only course of action for a grieving partner is to make an application to the court under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975, to remedy the situation. A court application is a costly process which can take many months and there is no guarantee of success. These applications can mean parents must claim against their children’s inheritance since children are first in line to inherit under the intestacy rules, and this creates even more stress and burden at what is already a difficult and emotional time.
What you can do
If you are living with a partner and want to ensure they are provided for, then you have two options: you can make a will, or you can tie the knot. Unfortunately, that isn’t going to be the most romantic proposal! Setting out your wishes and intentions which may – or may not – be straightforward, in a will means your partner is protected if the worst happens to you. Far better that than relying on being a unicorn – or a common-law-spouse.
If you are worried about what may happen to your family and shared property if you or your partner dies, or you are concerned about potentially leaving your partner with little certainty, then contact our team, who will be happy to talk you through your unique circumstances in more detail.