Cohabitation agreements and pre-nups back in the spotlight

Couples in long-term relationships, marriages or civil partnerships must make sure they are ‘legally prepared’ for the possibility of the relationship ending, a family law specialist said today.

Gill Graveson, partner at Birchall Blackburn Law and head of family law for the firm’s seven offices, was commenting following a recent landmark ruling in favour of the partner of a property millionaire who had hid assets.

Helen Roocroft was in an 18-year relationship with property tycoon Carol Ainscow when they separated in 2009. Ms Ainscow died in 2013 and had not made a will setting out her wishes.

Following her death, evidence was discovered that Ms Ainscow may have misled the courts about her true wealth during the dissolution of their civil partnership, which led to Ms Roocroft accepting a much lower settlement than she was entitled to.

The judgment handed down in October said that Ms Roocroft had submitted evidence suggesting that “the deceased’s income at the time of the consent order was three times that which she had stated in her Statement of Information”.

Gill said: “This is a stern warning about being honest and also a reminder to people who do not want a Judge to tell them how their assets are to be divided upon separation about the importance of setting out their wishes in black and white at the commencement of their cohabitation, whether it’s a couple living together, a marriage or civil partnership.

“It might not seem the most romantic of ideas but one day a cohabitation agreement or a pre-nup might turn out to the best thing you ever did.

“A cohabitation agreement or a pre-nup will set out your intentions of what will happen to your assets, it sets out what you brought to the table and what you expect to happen to it should the relationship break down.

“If there’s no formalities in place and the separation ends up in a court arena, the judge’s starting point, whether it’s a long marriage or civil partnership is equality. If you are not married but have joint assets, it can sometimes be even more complicated.”

Earlier this year new figures showed that the percentage of cohabiting couples had increased from 6.8% of the total population in 2002 to 9.5 % in 2015, reflecting a decrease in married couples: from 54.8% in 2002 to 50.6% in 2015.

Gill added: “People are becoming more aware of the need to protect assets coming into a new relationship, I’m doing more cohabitation agreements and pre-nups than I ever have done. People coming into second relationships or marriages, for instance, are much warier.”