What are the legal rights of a common law husband and wife?

So you’re not married, but you’ve lived together for years. You want to know where you stand. So where exactly do you stand? Is there such a thing as a common law wife or common law husband?

The short answer is no, there’s not. This catches a lot of people out as they wrongly assume because they live and bought a house together, have children together, have joint bank accounts etc. that they are subject to the same conditions as those who are married. Unfortunately that is not the case and you face very different conditions legally if you were ever to separate or if either partner was to die.

Common Law Spouses

Although this phrase is commonly used, couples that live together but are not married or in a civil partnership, do not have any legal recognition of their relationship.

So what are my legal rights?

If you are living together as a couple, which is also sometimes called cohabitation, then you will have fewer legal rights than if you were married.

An example of this would be if you were in a relationship and subsequently moved into your partner’s home, you may be with them a few years and then have 2 children with them and everything is going well. But 12 years down the road your relationship could come to an end. You may automatically think that you would then just need to look into dividing your assets, however even if you contributed to the mortgage of the property, you wouldn’t actually be entitled to anything beyond child support.

Cohabitation agreements

If you live with another person, whether you’re in a relationship with them, they’re a friend, or another family member, it is wise to have a cohabitation agreement in place.

You are however able to formalise aspects of your living together status with your partner by drawing up a legal contract called a cohabitation agreement which will provide some security surrounding your home and what is expected of each of you and the responsibilities you each have in the relationship.

A cohabitation agreement is a legal document that outlines who owns what and what percentage of it in your relationship . This covers property, cars, possessions and savings. If your relationship was to break down in the future, the cohabitation agreement lets you determine ahead of time how everything would be split up if it came to it.

The agreement also allows you to set out how you would provide for your children over and above the legal parental responsibilities that you each have. It can also include how you both propose to deal with joint purchases such as a car, any debts and bank accounts.

The cohabitation agreement may also state who will be responsible for paying what during your relationship. So who will pay each bill, or what proportion of each bill etc.

Trust of deeds

If you each put in a different portion of the deposit when first purchasing a house, then you are likely going to want to protect that in the eventuality that you and your partner split in the future. This is also a good way of preserving a parental gift of money that may have been given to help you with your deposit. This way yourself and your parent are safe in the knowledge that the money they gave you is protected.


If you are living together and not married at the time that one partner dies and you don’t have wills in place, the surviving partner will not automatically inherit anything, unless you jointly own property. If you wish for your partner to inherit, you should ensure you have a will. That is the only way to be safe in the knowledge that your wishes will be carried out, and your partner inherits what you want them to.

If you are an unmarried couple and you inherit from your partner, you are not exempt to paying inheritance tax as married couples are.

However, if one partner dies without leaving enough provisions in their will for the other partner to live on, then the surviving partner may be able to take the matter to court and try to claim from the estate.

Ending a Relationship

If you are looking to end your relationship and want some more information on where you stand legally, then please see our article: Separation of Unmarried Couples Legal Rights.  

How can I find out more information?

If you would like to find out more information about cohabitation agreements and trust of deeds, or any other concerns or questions you may have, please contact one of our experienced family law specialists on 0800 614 722.