Samantha Newton, Family Law Associate Solicitor at Thrings of Bath, explains that the number of unmarried couples living together is on the rise and, with it, a common misconception that the same rights apply when separating as for married couples or civil partners. The myth of the ‘common law spouse’ can land the more economically vulnerable partner in difficulties, but there are ways to ensure a fairer outcome in the event of separation.
Protecting the non-working parent
Often one parent will give up work – even a career – to raise the children. Perhaps this is due to high childcare costs against a parent’s earnings, to spend those precious early years with the children or for other reasons altogether. When relationships break down, non-working parents are often surprised to learn that their partners’ financial obligations are primarily limited to child maintenance. It’s worth thinking about how to keep your skills up-to-date or whether you can work part-time. Another option is to set up a savings fund in your name which your partner pays into while you are together, which can be later used to top-up your income while you find work.
Who owns the family home?
You may be buying a family home together or are living in a property in your partner’s name. If you later separate, the division of the property starts from what the deeds say, so think carefully about dividing ownership of your home and how this is re ected legally. If one of you contributed more to the purchase price or for home improvements, legal documents such as a declaration of trust, could be drawn up to reflect this. If it is not possible to add yours or your partner’s name to the deeds, perhaps because the mortgage is in one name, consider putting specific details in writing laying out what should happen if the relationship ever broke down. Pay into the mortgage if you can and keep evidence of any contributions you make to home improvements. Keeping a detailed record of discussions around the ownership of the property could also prove helpful further down the line.
A cohabitation agreement goes a step further than a declaration of trust. It sets out who owns what, including property, contents and savings. It can also set out who pays which bills and repairs, and how you will support each other and the children during the relationship, as well as if it comes to an end. Although it might seem unromantic, setting out your mutual understanding of your obligations to each other at the outset is a great way of managing expectations within a relationship. It can take the sting out of future conversations, such as around money, which even the healthiest of couples can find difficult. If you later marry or enter into a civil partnership, you will need to update your agreement to a prenuptial one.
Other options on the horizon
The law on civil partnerships is due to change, extending the option to formalise financial arrangements and enjoy additional rights on separation to heterosexual couples – without the need for marriage. If you prefer to go by the same name as your children without getting married or entering into a civil partnership, your family can also adopt double-barrelled surnames – or you could opt to change your name. Keep in mind, however, that this will not give you the additional legal protection provided by some of the options laid out above, marriage or civil partnership.