What is a common law partner?

What does 'common law partner' mean? Legally, nothing. No matter how much you love them, legally speaking your live-in partner might as well be Bob from down the street. Given this lack of legal protection, it’s important to make sure you protect yourself before you get cohabiting. The Mix explains it all.

A young couple are sitting on the floor, hugging each other. They are talking about common law marriage. This is a wide-angle image.

What is a common law marriage?

Let’s start with the basics. Common law marriage is a couple who live together but who aren’t married to each other. The word ‘marriage’ is misleading as you have no legal rights as a couple just by living together. That also means you have no legal rights to each other’s stuff if you break up. Even if you’ve lived together for a decade. Impressive, but still not enough to thaw the ice-cold heart of the law.

If I’m living with someone, do I have any legal rights if we split up?

Not really, no. Not unless you take legal steps to protect yourself. If you don’t, then you’re what’s known as a common law partner. Now, we bet you’re wondering ‘What is a common law partner?’ These are couples that live together, including those in gay relationships. It’s important to note that the law surrounding partnership and marriage in the UK is the same whether the individuals are heterosexual or not.

Many people think that the term ‘common law partner’ means that after a certain period of time they will have the same rights as a legally married couple or a civil partnership; however, these relationships don’t have the same legal recognition, even if you’re engaged to be married. A common law partner enjoys no legal protection or privileges over anyone else.

How can I protect myself legally before I move in with someone?

After clearing up ‘What does common law partner mean?’ you probably wanna know how to protect yourself legally (seeing as unmarried couples don’t have any built-in protections). Well you’ve come to the right place. 

If you want to protect your assets (money, possessions and property), you can draw up a legal document called a ‘cohabitation agreement’. That way you can outline your rights and obligations towards each other, such as how a jointly-owned house is shared. If you want to do this it would be a good idea to get solicitors in family law to help draw one up. It’s also worth writing a will. This is because if you’re not married and the worst happens, your partner won’t get anything.

Common law partners’ financial rights

Kind of disappointing after googling ‘What does common law partner mean?’ to find out that it’s essentially just a fancy way of saying a cohabiting couple. So do you actually have any rights? 

Unlike married couples, common law partners who live together are under no legal duty to look after one another financially, unless you’ve made a specific agreement to do so. You and your partner are legally responsible for your own debts, the whole of debts in joint names, and debts for which you have ‘joint and several’ legal responsibility.

If you were to break up and one of you didn’t use the account at all it would be slightly complicated. You would need to prove you had rights to any money, for example, by showing you regularly put money into a particular bank account. If you still want more info, you might like to check out the rest of our advice for moving in together here.

Do I have a right to the house if I live with someone long enough?

 It doesn’t matter how long you were together, you’re entitled to a share of nothing. Not only that, you have no right to stay there if they chose to chuck you out, unless you have children to look after and nowhere else to go. In that case you might have to apply to the court for child maintenance, at the very least. 

Do common law partners have rights if their partner dies?

If your partner dies and doesn’t leave a will, you won’t automatically inherit anything unless you own property together. Unlike married or civil partners, you’ll have to pay a large sum of inheritance tax.

Got questions about how common law partnership works or how you can protect your interests in a relationship? Head to our Discussion Boards to chat with our community. Or head over to The Guardian, who have a useful piece on cohabitation contracts.

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By Nishika Melwani

Updated on 29-Sep-2015