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What happens to property and children when an unmarried couple separate?

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The number of co-habiting couples has increased in the last decade to fifty per cent. When cohabiting couples separate they are faced with the same painful decisions that a married couple face, and often mistakenly believe that having lived together for a certain time they become ‘common law husband and wife’, giving them the same legal rights as a married couple.

Under English Law there is no such thing as a common law husband or wife. In the event of a relationship breakdown between cohabitees there is no equivalent to the divorce law. The Government has said that it will be at least 2012 before any new laws are made to protect couples who live together by giving them legal rights.

Couples may live together for many years before they separate, have children, share the payment of bills and buy assets together. These are complex issues to resolve legally. A couple’s individual property rights are considered the same as strangers who have lived together. Issues regarding how much each partner is entitled to may involve costly and lengthy court proceedings.

When a married couple have a child, both parents have equal parental rights and responsibilities, but when a child is born to an unmarried couple those rights belong to the mother. The father will only be presumed to have parental rights if he is named on the child’s birth certificate.

Head of our Family Team, Julie-Ann Harris, explains how a cohabitation agreement can help. She says “No one likes to think that their relationship will break down, particularly if you are considering living together. A cohabitation agreement is a legal document which sets out what assets each partner has, what property is involved and how finances will be managed. It will also detail your intentions during that relationship and what will happen should you part. An agreement is evidence of your intentions and if court proceedings are involved when you separate a judge will attach great importance to this.”

Our Family Team will be happy to advice you on this. Frettens are pleased to offer a free initial consultation for all new clients. Our family lawyers offer positive, down to earth advice, and we hope that this initial meeting allows you the time to see this as well. Contact us on 01202 499255 to arrange a free initial appointment at our office, where you will be able to meet your lawyer with no obligation or charge.

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