Financial Rights of Unmarried Couples Living Together

24 March 2021

Unmarried couples living together in England and Wales don't have the same legal rights as those who are married or in a civil partnership. In some cases, it may be possible to make a financial claim against an ex, even if you weren't married. This will depend on the circumstances.

One of the most effective ways to get protection as an unmarried couple is to put a cohabitation agreement in place.

Who keeps the family home?

Arguably the family home is the most valuable financial asset a couple accumulates during their relationship. For unmarried couples, each person's ability to make a financial claim on the home will depend on how they've contributed to it financially. This includes whether they are joint owners and how much each person contributed towards the purchase, mortgage or repair of the household.

A property may be held in the sole name of one partner or may be owned jointly between the couple.

If the couple are joint owners, then both people have equal rights to stay in the property. However, if one partner is the sole owner, the other may have no legal rights to remain in the home if they are asked to leave.

This can be affected if there are children living in the home, because their housing needs will need to continue being met. In these circumstances, the Court will only grant a parent and their children the right to stay in the home if it decides it is in the best interests of the children. Usually this would be for a limited time period or until the youngest child is 18 years old.

Beneficial interest in the property

If one person is the sole owner of the property, they have a legal right to stay in the home. However, the other partner may be able to claim a 'beneficial interest' in the property.

This is a way of getting a Court to formally recognise the contributions someone has made towards the home, even though they don't own it. The Court could also take into account any understanding the couple had when buying the home that each person would have a share in the property if it were sold.

If the couple don't have children and one partner is the sole owner of the home, the only way the other partner may be able to claim long-term rights to the property is by showing they have a 'beneficial interest' in it.

Occupation order

A Court can be asked to decide who has the right to stay in the home on a short-term basis. This type of court order is called an occupation order. An occupation order can also be used to allow a partner to return to the home if they've left.

Someone can apply for an occupation order if they're the sole owner, joint owner, have a beneficial interest or are the partner of a sole owner. However, if they're not the owner or joint owner, they can only apply for certain types of occupation order.

An occupation order usually lasts for a limited period of time.

Spousal maintenance

Living together as an unmarried couple doesn't entitle either partner to claim for financial maintenance from the other partner in the same way that marriage does. This means that even if a couple have lived together for decades and one partner has been financially dependent on the other throughout this time, neither would be able to claim ongoing financial support from the other after separation.

Child maintenance

If a couple has children, both parents have a legal duty to financially support their children. Therefore, whichever parent the child (or children) lives with after separation would be entitled to child maintenance payments from the other parent.

Pensions

When considering whether you have a financial claim on your ex’s pension, this will entirely depend on the pension scheme.

Some pension schemes cater more for unmarried couples, providing the opportunity for the pension scheme member to complete an ‘expression of wishes’ which will specify who benefits from their pension.

Unfortunately not all pensions are as flexible, but this doesn't mean someone wouldn't be able to gain access to their partner’s pension fund. If a pension can only be paid to a spouse or left to the decision of the trustees, the partner could ask for the assistance of a trustee to gain access.

Reduce the risks with a cohabitation agreement

If you and your partner are thinking about moving in together or are already living together, you might want to consider making a cohabitation agreement to ensure that you both know where you stand.

A cohabitation agreement can set out how you'll divide your finances if you separate in the future, including joint bank accounts, your home and any other assets. It can also cover financial arrangements during the relationship, such as how you’ll share the rent or mortgage and bills between you. A cohabitation agreement helps to agree things fairly, without the emotional pressures which can arise when a relationship breaks down. It can also help to avoid unnecessary stress and costly disputes in the future.

During the coronavirus lockdown, many couples moved in together to avoid being separated indefinitely. See our guide to cohabiting during lockdown for more information.

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