Many families will have been enjoying the festive season but for others it can be a tricky time of year. Some couples, both married and unmarried, will have made the difficult decision to call time on their relationship.

Many couples who decide to cohabit wrongly believe that they will have the same rights as married couples if their relationship breaks down. But this is not the case and the concept of a ‘common law marriage’ does not exist in law.

It is never easy to stretch one household’s finances to meet the living costs of two, particularly when there are children involved. While any separation can create financial pressures, there are additional difficulties for unmarried couples who find themselves outside the legal framework of divorce.

When a married couple separates, each has a claim against the other’s property, pension and income but unmarried partners have no such claims. In some circumstances, a cohabitant may be able to establish an interest in their former partner’s property by showing a contribution towards it but the length of time the parties were together is not necessarily relevant to this and each case is decided on its own facts.

Similarly, an unmarried partner cannot claim financial support in their own right from their ex-partner regardless of how long the parties have been together and how financially dependent one has been upon the other. However, if there are children, they would be able to make a claim for child maintenance.

An unmarried partner may have given up a promising career to raise the couple’s children or look after their home, wrongly believing that he or she will be supported by the other.

There can be further problems if an unmarried partner dies without having made a will. If the couple are married, the surviving spouse will automatically inherit the deceased’s estate in the absence of a will. This is not so for cohabitants.

It is therefore very important for any unmarried couples to give consideration to how they hold their property and what provisions should be in place if the relationship breaks down or if one partner dies.

FIVE GOLDEN PLANNING RULES FOR UNMARRIED COUPLES

Plan ahead - In happy times no one wants to think about the end of a relationship or the death of a partner but forward planning can help to ease future heartache and financial strain.

Seek legal advice - Under current law unmarried couples have limited rights and obligations and the law in this area is complicated.

Draw up a Cohabitation Agreement to set out how your property will be owned, what contributions will be made, how the property will be divided, and what financial support will be provided if you and your partner separate.

Make a will setting out what will happen to your joint and solely owned assets should you or your partner die.

Re-assess - It is advisable to re-assess the agreement at significant points in the relationship such as when a family home is being purchased or when children are born