Legal rights of unmarried couples in the UK: A complete Guide

In recent years, couples living together without actually getting married have formed Britain’s fastest-growing family-type. More and more couples now see marriage to be an obsolete union imposing responsibilities and dependence upon individuals. 

Despite such growth in numbers, unmarried couples residing in England and Wales have fewer rights than enjoyed by couples united into marriage or civil partnerships. Although there is no legal definition for unmarried couples, such an arrangement is often referred to as a common-law partnership. This term has now been admitted obsolete since there exists no such thing as a common-law spouse now! Also called cohabiting relationships, such alliances are scarcely recognised at law and do not enjoy sufficient protection. In response, individuals in such relationships also have fewer responsibilities to each other in the face of separation and break-up.


Married and unmarried couples can witness the disparity between their rights at various points in the typical life of an individual living in the UK. The UK courts do not have a clear framework to follow while deciding on unmarried couples’ matters after splitting up. For this very reason, unmarried couples should enter into cohabitation agreements beforehand, which can align things pretty well if the couple ever splits up.

Property Rights of Unmarried Couples

Spending substantially for acquiring a family home is often the most significant investment made by many people residing in the UK. Saving money for a jointly owned family home takes ample time and devotion from both individuals in a relationship. 

When an unmarried partner dies, the arrangement is very similar to that in married couples, except for the imposition of inheritance tax upon spouses. Upon the death of one of the partners, the other partner only gets to retain the entire house if they own it as a joint tenancy. If both the partners as a tenancy-in-common owned the house, the deceased partner’s share would be treated as part of their estate and passed along through inheritance. 

In the cases where the deceased partner holds the entire title to the family home, the other partner is left with no legal rights to remain in the house and can be asked to leave. However, such a situation can be averted if the couple has minor children in need of essential housing.

However, when the relationship falls apart, placing a claim is very different from that in married couples. Former partners in an unmarried couple can in no way claim “ownership” over the property of the other partner after a break-up. To amicably sort matters after splitting up, the partners can either sell the property jointly owned by both of them, proceeds from which may be received by both as per their shares. They can also decide if one of the partners wishes to buy the other’s share in the property. 

As mentioned earlier, courts are very reluctant to intervene robustly and divide the parties’ properties equally, the way it happens in divorce. The court may determine the shares of the former partners by looking at each partner’s financial contributions towards the home’s family and household expenses and adjudging whether a trust had formed.

Inheritance Rights of Unmarried Couples

When one of the partners in a cohabiting relationship dies without a will, the surviving partner has no automatic right to inherit from the deceased’s estate, either under statute or common law. To benefit from the deceased partner’s estate, a partner can, although make a claim from their estate under the Inheritance Act 1975, within the stipulated time of 6 months. 

Upon receiving such an application, the court looks upon several factors, including the applicant’s peculiar circumstances and the other inheritors of the deceased’s property, and decides whether the applicant should be provided with a share in the inheritance.

Spousal Support for Unmarried Partners

None of the former partners is responsible for providing for the other’s maintenance or financial well-being after separation in the absence of any formal agreement of marriage or partnership. This does mean that even in cases where the former partners had been living together for decades and can be financially dependent on the other, none of them could claim any support from the other post-break-up. However, if the partners have already started a family and have children, child support will have to be necessarily provided.

Parental Responsibilities of Unmarried Parents

As a rule of thumb, parental responsibility for children automatically belongs to the mothers. On the other hand, fathers may only be eligible to receive parental responsibility by qualifying for any of the two specific scenarios. The first one is by marrying the children’s mother, whereas the second way is by jointly registering the children’s birth.

Parental responsibility grants parents the right to children’s custody and their decisions for education, welfare, and religion, amongst others.

Joint Banking for Unmarried Couples

Unmarried couples do not see any differences in banking procedures and rules due to their relationship status. They are free to open a joint bank account for which marriage has never been requisite. Joint bank accounts can help in easy pooling of money for household expenses and provide a shared record of cashflow. A joint bank account, although, links you to the other person in an extraordinary manner. The other joint operator of the account is at liberty to take out all the cash present in the account if ever you split up with them, while the joint account keeps operating as before. A close association with the other partner through a joint account also means that the partner’s credit score or poor financial track record directly impacts your personal credit score.

Debt Sharing in Unmarried Couples

Partners in a cohabiting relationship are independently and exclusively liable for the debts they take up and accumulate individually. A person cannot be forced to pay off any debts which their partner has either failed to pay or has defaulted. However, if the debt had been taken in both the partners’ joint name, both shall be fully liable to make good the borrowed amount to the lender. Such instances are often seen while purchasing houses on joint tenancy, at which point the death of any one of the partners, the surviving partner is overburdened under debt. 

For this very reason, life insurance policies are stressed upon to be necessarily taken by individuals in unmarried couples separately. However, upon defaulting on the loan, the property secured in collateral may be ordered to be sold to enable the lender to recover his lent amount. This may significantly affect the other partner who might have joint ownership over the property with the defaulting partner.

Rental Rights of Unmarried Couples

While cohabiters equally pay for the rental accommodation they live in, it is confusing who may be named the tenant in the tenancy agreement. This has been solved with a joint tenancy agreement whereby there can be multiple tenants of the same property. Assignment of tenancy is also possible, which allows a partner who intends to leave the house to assign the tenancy and all rights incidental from it solely upon the partner that is staying. Therefore, no such loopholes exist in rental arrangements, whereby a former partner could be made subject to lose or revenge by another after the relationship falls apart.

Cohabitation Agreement for Unmarried Couples

To seek protection against future adversities, unmarried couples are advised to sign a cohabitation agreement that sets out the arrangements if the relationship falls apart someday. A cohabitation agreement clearly outlines the patterns of ownership, each partner’s responsibilities, expectations from owning a house, and the partners’ perspective on what should ideally happen once the relationship comes to an end. 

This agreement gives a fair idea of the intentions and expectations of the partners from the relationship. It also acts as documentary proof of the contributions made by each partner towards their combined family life during the relationship. Couples should enter into this agreement beforehand to avoid any future instances of futile litigation, which would do nothing than consuming unnecessary time and money for no good.

The space of recognised rights for unmarried couples and cohabiting individuals have remained aloof from proper law-making or significant interference from the courts. For this reason, the case-law stands underdeveloped, with not much known about peculiar cases and exceptional circumstances. With no existing bars or specific statutory directions in unmarried couples, the courts may be willing to take up novel cases and rigorously act towards preventing injustice from happening. 

Final Thoughts

If you find yourself struggling with problems owing to your unmarried status or possible violation of your rights, feel free to contact our highly experienced family law solicitors. They would be glad to present you with all the legal remedies possibly available to you, acknowledging the legal uncertainty that prevails.

This site uses cookies to make it more useful and reliable. See our privacy policy. Do not use this site if you do not consent to our use of cookies.