Couples who live together without getting married often assume they have ‘common law’ rights.
We often hear from women in particular who think that their position as a ‘common law wife’ gives them legal protection. Regrettably this is not the case. The ‘common law wife’ is a myth, not a legal reality.
The legal status of unmarried couples typically becomes an issue when they split up. And this is becoming an ever increasing problem as the number of people cohabiting rises in the UK. In the last 20 years the number has more than doubled.
The myth of the common law wife has taken hold
It can come as a great shock to unmarried people when they find that they do not enjoy the same rights as their married counterparts, even if they have been cohabiting for many years and have brought up a family together. Somehow the myth of the ‘common law wife’ and ‘common law husband’ has taken hold and this has led to millions of people living in ignorance of their true legal position.
It is not only in the area of relationship breakdown that the unmarried person’s limited legal rights is problematic. We are also seeing a growing number of inheritance disputes arising when one partner dies and leaves the surviving partner with no adequate financial provision.
Common law marriage and the problem of inheritance
A huge proportion of unmarried couples seem to be unaware that if one of them dies without leaving a will benefiting the other, the surviving partner will not automatically inherit anything from them, unless they happen to own property as ‘joint tenants’. Contrast this with the legal position of a married couple, where the surviving spouse will inherit all or some of the deceased spouse’s estate even if no will has been made.
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