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Lifestyle Guides

Cohabiting couples: Know your property rights

If you’re an unmarried couple and you’re considering living together – or if you’ve already taken the plunge – it’s good to know what your rights are regarding your home.

Couple at home

Bob Dylan was right: the times they are a-changin’. Increasingly, couples are choosing to cohabit rather than get married.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures in September 2019 showed the number of mixed-sex cohabiting couples is increasing steadily. Over the last decade, this has shot up from 1.3 million in 2008, to a total of five million in 2018 .

And it’s not just couples. The second largest family type in the UK features cohabiting parents, and these numbers increase year on year.

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and living with your partner, you might be wondering what your rights are. OK, not the most romantic thing in the world, but it’s sensible to know where you stand.

We’re going to be frank… Cohabiting couples don’t have the same protections as married couples or those in civil partnerships*. Although cohabiting was traditionally referred to as ‘common-law marriage’, this label is actually pretty unhelpful, because it implies that some of the rights associated with marriage are the same.

Things can get complicated if the mortgage isn’t shared equally, or there are children involved. But luckily there are steps that can be taken to safeguard one another’s interests in an uncertain future.

How to get greater protection

So, if cohabiting in itself doesn’t create any rights or protections, what steps can be taken? Well, you could:

Get a cohabitation agreement

A cohabitation agreement (also known as a living together agreement) sets out what you’ve agreed to do regarding your home, possessions, debts and bills in the event that you split up. They can also allow for access to one another’s state pension, and create next-of-kin rights if there’s a medical emergency.

These agreements aren’t exclusive to cohabiting partners. For instance, you could also choose to get one if you moved in with a friend or sibling.

Plus the agreements are legally binding if effected by a family law solicitor. So it’s not a terrible idea to get one if you make a big life change, such as getting a mortgage or having children together.

Having a binding cohabitation agreement can cost anything between £300 and £4,000, depending on your circumstances and the complexity of the agreement. This may sound expensive, but it could ultimately work out much cheaper than any legal bills resulting from a dispute if you break up.

In addition, a solicitor should give you a free estimate before you commit, so it’s worth shopping around.

Make a will

Getting a will written is one of the best ways to ensure your estate’s inherited according to your wishes when you die.

If you die intestate (ie without a will in place), an unmarried partner will have no legal claim to your estate. And this is true even if you’ve been together for a long time.

On the other hand, getting a will written should see that your partner gets their fair share.

And you should absolutely have a will if you own property. Otherwise, if your family home is in your name, there are no guarantees that your partner – or any stepchildren you may have – will be able to carry on living there when you die. But if your wishes are enshrined in a will, you can pass on the property, or a share in it. At very least you can guarantee them a right to continue living there.

Find out more about making a will.

Take out life insurance

It may also be worth looking into life insurance policies to protect one another. For example, having a joint life insurance policy will see that one partner receives a lump sum in the event of the other’s death. And having a joint policy will usually be cheaper than taking out two separate policies.

In addition, if you’re paying off a mortgage, you could consider a mortgage life insurance policy (also known as decreasing-term life insurance). With these policies, the potential payout is intended to cover the payments remaining on the mortgage. 

As such, the payout amount decreases over time. By and large, the premiums for these policies tend to be cheaper than those of policies where the payout remains fixed.

Add Family Legal Protection to your home insurance

When you take out home insurance, it’s possible to add Family Legal Protection as an optional extra. This can cover you and your partner for up to £100,000 in legal costs – with no excess to pay – if you find yourself in one of a number of sticky situations.

For example, this policy add-on may prove useful in the event of disputes involving your home, or if the property gets damaged. But its scope goes beyond the property itself. 

You can also be covered for personal injury, identity theft, employment disputes… It can even cover you for loss of earnings if you’re selected for jury service, if the costs aren’t covered by your employer or the court.

And yes, the policy will cover unmarried couples and any children, provided you live at the same address.

* Please note that in Scotland, cohabitation and property rights are defined by the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006.

For more peace-of-mind protection, it’s worth considering comprehensive home insurance when you move in together.