It is a widespread misconception that there is such thing as the ‘common law marriage’ with many people believing that if they are in a long-standing relationship, often with children involved, they will begin to acquire the same rights as married couples or those in a Civil Partnership.
The truth is the legal protection available to cohabitees is vastly different to those who are married or in a Civil Partnership, with cohabitees often being left in a worse financial position than they anticipated when their relationship ends or their partner dies.
A recent Supreme Court ruling, relating to an unmarried mother of four children, casts light on this regularly visited topic. Ms McLaughlin lives in Northern Ireland and had been in a cohabiting relationship with her partner, Mr Adam, for 23 years. Although they had four children together they had never married.
Sadly in 2014 Mr Adams died and Ms McLaughlin was left providing for the family. As Mr Adams’ surviving partner, Ms McLaughlin wanted to claim Widowed Parent’s Allowance (WPA) to help her provide financially for their children. However, the current rules state that WPA can only be claimed if you were the spouse or Civil Partner of the deceased. As she had never been married to Mr Adams, Ms McLaughlin was therefore told she was unable to claim.
Taking her case all the way to the Supreme Court, Ms McLaughlin asked the Court to consider her claim and whether the restriction is incompatible with Human Rights laws. By a majority ruling, the Supreme Court decided that it is. Whilst the ruling doesn’t change the current rules for receiving WPA it is hoped that it will put pressure on the Government to make changes in this area allowing for more protection for cohabitees.
Of course this is not the only circumstance where cohabitees may find themselves in a difficult position if their partner dies or the relationship breaks down. Worryingly many people are not aware that the same provisions available for spouses or Civil Partners in respect of benefits, inheritance or claims relating to property, pensions and maintenance upon the relationship breakdown are not available to them as cohabitees.
As more and more couples are choosing not to marry this is an area of law which is often a topic for debate. However, until the law is reformed cohabitees should take practical steps to secure their position as much as possible by checking they have up-to-date Wills and obtaining legal advice upon property ownership, their rights as unmarried parents and whether they would benefit from a Cohabitation Agreement to record how they want to deal with their finances in the event of a separation.
Blacks Solicitors LLP
29 King Street
Leeds, LS1 2HL
0113 207 0000