Cohabiting Couples and the 21st Century
Suppose you buy a house with your partner and live happily together for 5, 10, maybe 20 years, but you do not marry. What if your partner then dies? Would you assume that the property would pass to yourself? Most people would, and they would be quite reasonable to. However, in many cases this would not be the case and the property, or at least some of it, could pass to an estranged wife, or a child from a previous relationship.
This is a scenario which many people face when they live together, in a relationship, but are not married. Take the example of Joy Williams. Joy lived with her partner, Norman Martin, for 18 years. They were not married. The property was owned by Joy and Norman as tenants in common meaning that when Norman died in 2012 of a heart attack, his half of the property passed to his estranged wife, Maureen Martin. Although Norman and Maureen had separated, they had not divorced. Norman had also not updated his Will stipulating who he would like his half share of the property to pass to. Therefore, when Norman died, his half share of the property automatically passed to Maureen. Leaving Joy to face losing her home.
The matter went to Court and Joy argued that she and Norman had lived together in a committed relationship for 18 years and that Norman had financially supported her throughout their relationship. Joy claimed that Normans’ half share in the property should pass to her to provide her with security, as Norman would have wanted.
Maureen argued against this stating that she and Norman had continued to have a relationship as husband and wife and that Norman was simply maintaining two separate households. Maureen’s daughter also went on to claim that her mother had been a faithful and devoted wife to Norman. The Judge rejected Maureen’s argument stating that it was quite clear that Joy and Norman had lived as husband and wife in a way in which they expected to spend the rest of their lives and ruled in favour of joy. Joy was reported to be relived and delighted with the result.
Despite the victory in this case, it highlights the severe need for cohabitation laws to be updated and brought into the 21st century. There needs to be a change in the law so that people in these situations have some form of legal rights as the law does not currently recognise relationships between unmarried couples.
Your legal rights will largely depend on how property is owned between you and your partner – as tenants in common (as above) or as joint tenants. If you own property as joint tenants with your partner, the property will pass to the surviving partner automatically via the right of survivorship.
If you are in a cohabiting relationship, you should consider creating a cohabitation agreement outlining each party’s intentions within the relationship, who owns property and how bills are to be divided. You should also update your Will and make sure it’s contents are up to date, especially if your circumstances or relationship has changed.
If you have questions about your cohabiting relationship then please contact us on 01282 422711 or alternatively complete our online claim form to see if we can help.