There are more unmarried couples living together in the UK than ever before. 2012 figures from the ONS show that 5.9m people are currently cohabiting in the UK – more than twice as many as in 1996 and 2 million more than ten years previous.

‘Common law’ husbands and wives aren’t recognised by the legal system

With so many couples living together without getting married, perceived wisdom is that they become ‘common law’ husband and wife, and therefore enjoy the same rights as a married couple. A public survey in 2008 confirmed this: over half (51%) of those surveyed thought that this was the case.

However this is a myth. Unless they’ve signed a legal cohabitation agreement, common law couples won’t share the same rights as married couples on a number of issues, including:

•    Inheritance – the law doesn’t automatically allow bereaved common law partners to inherit from each other.
•    Inheritance tax – provisions for increasing the inheritance tax threshold are in place for married couples, but not for a ‘common law husband and wife’.
•    Co-owning assets – if, for instance, property is paid into by both common law partners but only in the name of one, the other partner may struggle to recover the assets that they would be entitled to in a marriage.

What is a cohabitation agreement?

A cohabitation agreement means that unmarried partners (or gay couples who aren’t civil partners) can draw up a contract that sets out their rights in the relationship and if it happens to break down. Typically, this will include cohabitation property rights: ensuring that both parties enjoy the same ownership of a house that they’re paying towards. Or it provides a way to deal with debts and day-to-day finances.

Is a cohabitation agreement legally binding? 

It is, so long as the two parties both receive independent legal advice from qualified solicitors and aren’t under undue duress. Then the agreement will be watertight. What’s more, we find that the common law couples who are conscientious enough to draw up these legally-binding agreements usually find ways to abide by what they’ve previously agreed.

But just like getting married provides both parties with security and a sound legal standing, signing a well-constructed cohabitation agreement is a great way to protect against any potential problems that the future may have to hold.

Talk to cohabitation solicitors today

Howells Solicitors, based in Cardiff, specialise in helping cohabiting couples enjoy the same rights as married couples through watertight cohabitation agreements. Whether you want some legal advice for cohabitees, or want to draw up a contract, talk to their expert team today by calling them on 02920 404014 or by email at


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