Property Rights for Unmarried Couples: Who Gets the House?

‘Common law’ marriage doesn’t exist in England and Wales

In the UK, the number of unmarried couples living together has increased by 144% since 1996. But the law still provides greater protection for married partners when it comes to the sharing of assets such as property.

Many people fall victim to the misconception that after living together for a few years, you automatically gain the same financial rights as a married couple. This is known as ‘common law’ marriage.

But in the UK, there is currently no legal recognition of common law partnerships. This means that if you were to separate, you may not have an automatic right to the property you’re living in.

Who will keep our house if my partner and I separate?

If you and your partner jointly own your home, you will both be entitled to stay there if you split up. This can make it difficult to decide how a property should be managed following a relationship breakdown.

Some couples in this position will decide to sell the property and divide the proceeds. But this can bring up further complications around how much each person should receive from the sale. This will ultimately depend on whether you and your ex-partner are joint tenants or tenants in common.

Joint tenants equally own a property, whereas tenants in common have distinct shares that are not always 50/50. Your share of the property will usually determine how much of its value you’re entitled to.

My partner owns the property I live in – what are my rights?

If your partner owns the home you’re living in, you might have wondered where that leaves you in terms of your rights to the property.

Where a property has been bought in one person’s name, they will automatically have the right to stay there in the event of a break-up. But if you’ve contributed to bills or renovation work, you may be able to claim a ‘beneficial interest’.

Having beneficial interest is not the same as legally owning your home. But it could allow you live in the property, benefit from any income if it is rented out or receive a share of the profit if it is sold.

In some circumstances, it may also be possible to apply through the courts for an occupation order. An experienced family law solicitor can help you to do this.

If approved, an occupation order will allow you to continue to live in the property for a limited period of time. This should only be viewed as a short-term solution though, as it won’t determine who is entitled to the property.

I live in a rented property – will I be able to stay?

If you live in a rented home and your name is not on the tenancy agreement, you’ll have no right to remain in the property if your ex-partner asks you to leave.

But if you’ve signed a joint tenancy agreement, you’ll have an equal right to stay. This is why it’s always best to make sure that your name is listed on your tenancy contract when you first move in.

It is possible to apply to the courts for a joint tenancy to be transferred into one person’s name after a relationship breakdown. But this will also need to be approved by your landlord.

Reducing the risk with a cohabitation agreement

In recent years, there have been attempts to modernise the law and provide further protection for unmarried couples. The Cohabitation Rights Bill entered the House of Lords in February 2020, but so far this has not been passed into legislation.

For now, the risk remains for unmarried couples as there is still a lack of governance over how assets should be split following the breakdown of a ‘common law’ relationship.

But there are still steps you can take to protect yourself outside of a marriage or civil partnership.

If you’re in the process of moving in with your partner, we would encourage you to think about writing up a cohabitation agreement. This is a legally binding document that will outline how your property, among other assets, would be shared if you were ever to split up.

We would also advise setting out your wishes in a Will if you haven’t already got one. This may sound morbid but unless you own your home as joint tenants, your partner will not automatically inherit your share of the property after your death.

Although it’s not romantic to think about, making sure you’re prepared for a worst-case scenario is important in any relationship. Our expert solicitors can help you navigate the legal side of this. So you’ll have the peace of mind that you’re protected should anything go wrong.

To find out more, get in touch with our friendly claims team. You can call us for free or make an enquiry online and we’ll get back to you.


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