Cohabitation during Coronavirus

Couples in the UK were told on 24th March 2020, that they must choose to either live together or not see each other during the coronavirus lockdown. The deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, explained that couples must consider the strength of their relationship and either commit to spending the lockdown period together, or not see each other for what will potentially be several weeks.

However, should you decide to live with your partner and become a ‘cohabiting couple’, what legal rights do you have?

Research published in 2008 showed that 51% of people believed that there was a status of ‘common law marriage’, providing cohabiting couples with the same rights as couples who are married. This is not correct and a ‘common law marriage’ does not exist. Financial orders that are available to separated spouses under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 do not apply to cohabiting couples, and there is no law to protect or deal with the problems that cohabiting couples face.

Despite this, the total number of cohabiting couples continues to increase and according to government figures, has increased by 131% from around 1.5 million in 1996 to around 3.4 million in 2018. In 2018, 21% of couples that lived together were cohabiting rather than married or in a civil partnership.

However, cohabiting couples can enter into an agreement known as a cohabitation agreement, to set out the arrangements that will apply while they are living together, as well as establishing their rights in the event of relationship breakdown.

So, what can your cohabitation agreement cover?

1. Ownership of your real and personal property;
2. How you pay your rent, mortgage or other household bills;
3. Your finances such as what happens to any joint accounts or pensions;
4. Your children such as child maintenance payments and their surnames. Although, provisions for children will be limited by the Children Act 1989 and will be open to review by the courts;
5. Your pets; and
6. Any other matters that you would like to be included. However, it is important that your agreement does not contain anything too trivial such as how your household chores should be divided. Provisions like these will make it more likely that the courts will decide that your agreement is not valid.

Whilst you may feel a cohabitation agreement is not necessary and will cost you money in the short term, they can save a lot of time and money should you decide to separate whilst living together. If there is not a cohabitation agreement in place, and you cannot agree as to the ownership of certain items, or what share each party has in an asset, then an application to court may have to be made. Most people are aware that court proceedings can be extremely costly as well as taking a significant amount of time.

Your cohabitation agreement could also contain provisions to cover what should happen in the sad event that one of you should pass away whilst cohabiting. This would avoid any dispute over the deceased partner’s estate.

Should you wish to discuss putting a cohabitation agreement in place, or require assistance with any family matter, please contact our family team at familylaw@woodfines.co.uk and we will happily assist you.

-Claire Wilkie