Some people remain unaware that living together (or “cohabitation”) does not give a couple any legal status, no matter how long they have been together or whether they have children: there is no such thing as a common law spouse, and cohabitees enjoy none of the rights of a married couple on separation.
This is also particularly relevant on the death of one of them: if cohabitees do not make a Will leaving their assets to one another, the intestacy rules may mean that the survivor is left in a very tight spot.
The unhappy couple
The sometimes harsh reality of this situation has been highlighted this year by the case of Joy Williams and Norman Martin. Mr Martin was separated from his wife, and he and Ms Williams lived together for 18 years in a house that they owned together.
However, Mr Martin was never divorced from his wife and, crucially, never made a Will. As a result, when he died of a heart attack in 2012, under the intestacy rules his £320,000 share in the home he shared with Ms Williams passed to his wife.
A glimmer of hope?
Facing the prospect of losing her home and financial security, Ms Williams made an Inheritance Act claim to recover her husband’s share of their home. Though the claim was contested by Mrs Martin, the Court ruled in favour of Ms Williams in February this year.
Though there may be an appeal by Mrs Martin, this decision has been heralded as the first of its kind and a step in the right direction for cohabitants. However, though it may signal a change in the court’s approach, the pain and expense of a lengthy legal battle could have been avoided had Mr Martin had an up to date Will.
The Cohabitation Rights Bill 2016-17 is in its preliminary stages and had its first reading in the House of Lords in June this year. This stage is a formality that signals the starts of a Bill’s process through Parliament.
If passed, it would offer basic protection for long-term cohabitees who live together as a couple. This protection applies to those couples who have children together or to those who have lived together for a continuous period of three years. Though it offers more security and certainty for unmarried cohabitants, it may be years before full legal protection is afforded. Therefore, unmarried couples should keep Wills up to date and ensure that any shared property is owned correctly.