But is this the case, and does common law marriage even exist? What rights do cohabiting couples have, if any? Wirral divorce solicitor Tracey Miller explores the ‘common law marriage myth’ and offers some essential advice for unmarried couples to help protect their rights.

What is the common law marriage myth?

If you live with your partner but you aren’t married, you don’t have the same legal rights and protections as a married couple. Despite this, nearly half of people believe that they have a common law marriage if they live with their partner.

The same British Social Attitudes Survey found that 55% of couples with children believe that common law marriages exist. In reality, it doesn’t matter whether you have children, or if you’ve been living together for two years or twenty years. You still don’t have the same legal rights as married couples.

What rights do married couples have that cohabitees don’t?

The rights we’re discussing here extend to property and assets, as well as inheritance tax and other matters.

If you and your partner separate, you won’t have a legal claim on assets unless you can show evidence that you have an interest in it. So, if you live in a house that was purchased by your partner, and the relationship ends – you may not even have the right to live there. You may be able to make a claim if you can provide evidence of financial contribution, but you may not be successful.

Other key differences between marriage and cohabitation include the following:

·         You won’t automatically inherit anything if your partner dies and doesn’t leave a will

·         Cohabiting couples have no obligation under the law to support each other financially

·         You have no right to live in the ‘matrimonial home’ after separation.

But where does this sweeping misconception come from?

The concept of a common law marriage is relatively recent, and is believed to be invented – with no historical tradition. It comes from a time when it was less socially acceptable for unmarried couples to live together, being used by the press to describe ‘common law’ wives and husbands, as well as by couples trying to avoid the perceived shame of cohabitation.

Cohabitation is increasingly common in modern times, without any of the stigma of former times, but the myth of common law marriage still persists. And ignorance of the law can put couples and their children at risk, if they don’t make arrangements just in case the worst should happen.

How a cohabitation agreement can help

With the help of a family lawyer, you and your partner can draw up a cohabitation agreement. This sets out what will happen if you separate, sorting issues such as child support, control over bank accounts, the division of assets and so on.

To start the process of drawing up a cohabitation agreement, get in touch with Wirral family lawyer Tracey Miller Family Law.