Susan J Williams Partner and Head of Family Department
Valentine's Day - your legal rights when taking the next step in your relationship
If you’re thinking of moving in together or popping the big question this Valentine’s Day, in this article, we outline legal rights and options for unmarried couples once the rose-tinted glasses have faded.
Valentine’s Day has origins dating back as far as the third century, to the Catholic Priest St Valentine. Despite its long history, Valentine’s Day is now a significant cultural celebration, recognised internationally as a day to symbolise and celebrate love.
Each year, on 14 February millions of people across the world mark the day by sending cards and gifts to their partners to show their love and affection. With many considering this to be the most romantic day of the year, it may seem an appropriate time to embark on the next step of your relationship. This could mean couples deciding to move in together, or it sometimes provide an opportunity for a marriage proposal. These are very exciting times for couples, when careful consideration of the legal consequence of taking that next step are no doubt far from the happy couple’s minds.
Do unmarried couples have any legal protection or rights?
As the number of couples cohabiting before marriage, or as an alternative to marriage, is ever increasing, it is perhaps surprising that the legal consequences of this are not widely understood. In UK law, there is no legal recognition for the status of unmarried cohabiting couples, therefore couples who live together have no particular legal rights. This can create difficulties should financial disputes arise, in the event of serious illness or death or should the relationship break down. Unlike married couples, co-habiting couples do not have the same recourse to financial orders should the relationship come to an end.
How can unmarried couples stay protected?
A practical solution is to enter into a co-habitation agreement. This is a document which can cover a wide spectrum of matters including ownership of the property, how bills and expenses are to be paid, responsibilities regarding debts and arrangements for children. A co-habitation agreement can provide peace of mind that agreements are formally recorded into a legal document.
By entering into a co-habitation agreement, couples will discuss their futures and financial commitments openly with one another. Therefore, they will have clarity on how assets are held and their financial expectations of one another. A co-habitation agreement can ensure that the couple’s intentions when setting up a home together are legally enforceable; whether this be in a rental property, a house owned jointly or when one person moves to live in their partner’s home solely owned by them.
A co-habitation agreement is a useful tool in reducing any potential conflict during and when a relationship comes to an end, avoiding costly litigation should a dispute arise.
Valentine’s Day may also provide an opportune moment to pop that big question. Co-habitation agreements can be drawn up into pre-nuptial agreements should the couple wish to marry. Marriage, unlike cohabitation, creates legal rights and responsibilities to one another. Similarly to co-habitation agreements, it set outs and clarifies how the finances will be handled during the marriage, and how the assets are to be divided in the event of a relationship breakdown.
Pre-nuptial agreements, whilst not legally binding in the UK, when correctly drafted and executed are generally accepted by Courts as proof of a couple's intentions. They are extremely useful in assisting with financial settlements following a breakdown in the marriage and ultimately avoid costly litigation.
Wills and Lasting Powers of Attorney
A pre-nuptial agreement, along with Wills and Lasting Power of Attorneys, are documents couples should consider making when entering into marriage. They provide solutions to difficult issues that may arise later. Marriage also has the effect of automatically revoking a will, unless that was made expressly in contemplation of that marriage and the spouse will acquire inheritance rights under the rules of intestacy.
If you are considering taking that next step in your relationship, we have experts who can provide further advice regarding your circumstances and assist in putting a co-habitation or pre-nuptial agreement in place. For more information and advice, get in touch with a member of our Family team today.