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Cohabitation – your questions answered

It might seem unromantic, money-grabbing or pessimistic to obtain legal advice, but a cohabitation agreement can offer protection both when  a cohabiting couple are living together and if they decide to separate, says family and divorce solicitor Natasha Miller of Wiltshire law firm Goughs.

Cohabitation is the fastest-growing family type in the UK. However, many couples do not realise that if they split up there is not an automatic right to financial support.

What is a cohabitation agreement?

If you and your partner are planning on living together, or already do, it is useful to create a cohabitation agreement, sometimes referred to as a living together agreement.

A cohabitation agreement, provided it is drafted and executed properly, is a legally binding contract that sets out clear ownership and responsibilities for you both.

The cohabitation agreement can cover elements such as ownership of property, share of the mortgage or rent you will pay, next of kin rights, how household bills will be dealt with, finances, pets and care of children, both when you are living together and in the event you separate.

Am I not protected by Common Law Marriage?

No, you are not. According to the Office for National Statistics there are 3.6 million unmarried couples living together compared to 1.5 million in 1996. Many of these people believe that sharing a home with their partner automatically creates a common law marriage, but this is a myth in the UK.

The length of time you have lived with your partner has no legal validity and could leave you in a vulnerable situation should you separate.

I have contributed significantly to our lifestyle over the years, what am I entitled to?

Even when you may have loaned your partner money to pay debts, paid for cars, holidays and luxuries in life, you are still unlikely to be successful in a claim for a share of a property. If you were married, the court recognises all financial and non-financial contributions over the course of the relationship, including raising children, as broadly equal contributions.

The court has broad powers to order property to be sold, transferred, and cash payments to be made between spouses. The court does not yet have similar discretion when dealing with disputes between unmarried couples nor any similar range of orders to make.

You would need to prove that the other person made a promise to you that you would gain a financial interest in that specific property if you were to pay for everything else, the cost of which you may well need to prove with documentation in support.

My partner and I have children. Surely I am protected for the future?

If you are unmarried and living together with children you do not have the same rights as married couples to make claims for spousal maintenance, property adjustment orders, lump sum orders and pension sharing orders. There are limited orders that can be made but that is dependent on the individual circumstances.

By creating a legally binding cohabitation agreement both you and your partner can discuss what you want to happen around property, finances and care of children should your relationship come to an end.

How can a solicitor help me?

It might seem unromantic, money-grabbing or pessimistic to obtain legal advice. However, you may not feel the same further down the line after years of financial contribution, or sacrifices made to raise children, when it comes to separating, had you taken steps to protect yourself from the very beginning.

Natasha Miller is a family and divorce solicitor at Goughs, which has offices in Calne, Chippenham, Corsham, Devizes, Melksham, and Trowbridge.

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