What is a Common Law Spouse? | Newsroom | Howells LLP
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What Are Your Legal Rights As a ‘Common Law Spouse’?

Howells Solicitors

29 Aug, 2020

When a couple have been living together for a number of years, and perhaps have children together, there is often confusion that they become ‘common-law spouses’. Many people believe they are entitled to the same legal rights as a married couple. Although the term ‘common-law spouse’ is frequently used, legally, there is no such thing and your legal rights as a partner depend upon whether you are married or are living together. Couples who live together but are not married are often informally called ‘cohabitees‘.

Complications From ‘Common Law Spouse’ Arrangements

There are a number of complications that arise from ‘common-law spouses’ separating, these include: 

Claiming a Share of the Family Home 

If the family home is held in one of the occupants’ names, both of you will not be able to claim a share of it. As a starting point, the house would be solely owned by the individual whose name is on the legal deeds. However, you might still be able to prove your right to the home if you can show that you have a ‘beneficial interest’. This usually means you’ve financially contributed to the home – for example by paying a mortgage or deposit.

Parental Rights

Unmarried fathers do not automatically have Parental Rights for their child. Only a person who holds parental responsibility can legally have a say in significant decisions about a child’s upbringing. This may include what name the child shall be known by, education, travel, and health issues. Those without parental responsibility do not.  Whether a father has parental responsibility depends on the age of the child and whether the unmarried father is named on their birth certificate.


Unmarried couples have no duty to provide for each other financially into the future, unlike married couples who sometimes do. 

If you are living together and you and your partner have separate bank accounts, neither of you has the right to access money held in the other partner’s account. Furthermore, if you have a joint bank account and one of you didn’t use the account at all, for example, you didn’t pay any money in or take any out, it may be difficult to claim that you have any right to it.


If one partner dies without leaving a Will, the surviving partner will not automatically inherit anything unless the couple owned property jointly. If you inherit money or property from an unmarried partner, you are not exempt from paying inheritance tax, as married couples are.

Cohabitation Agreement

You can formalise the legal aspects of your relationship with a common-law spouse by drawing up a legal agreement called a ‘cohabitation agreement’, also called a ‘living together agreement’.

A cohabitation agreement outlines the rights and obligations of each partner towards each other, and it is legally binding. Although this may seem formal, it’s a sensible and common method of protecting your assets and possessions and the right to claim them if you are living with a partner and have no intention to marry in the near future. When a cohabitation agreement is drawn up, it is advisable to draft a Will which will outline exactly what will happen to your possessions and finances when you die.

How Our Family Law Solicitors Can Help

You should always seek legal advice if you have any worries about ownership of assets and finances or your rights in an unmarried relationship.

At Howells, we have a long history of advising married and unmarried couples, and we can prepare cohabitation contracts or living together agreements, together with a Will.

Our Family Law department offers a free 30-minute consultation, fixed fees where appropriate and flexible appointments to suit your needs.

You can email Howells to make an appointment at enquiries@howellsllp.com or call us:

Sheffield0114 249 66 66

Barnsley: 0122 680 51 90

Rotherham0170 936 40 00

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