National Marriage week
In the build up to National Marriage Week, a leading Yorkshire lawyer is advising couples to contemplate the consequences of marriage fully, before getting down on one knee to propose this Valentines Day.
Marking the beginning of National Marriage Week (7-14 February), Alison Straw, head of the family team with law firm Irwin Mitchell at its offices in Queen Street, Leeds, says it is important for the county's cupids to consider the legal consequences of marriage before taking the plunge and getting hitched.
Marital Law Expert
Mrs Straw said: "Alongside New Years Eve, Valentines Day definitely tops the dates to pop the question, but getting married shows a sign of commitment and it's important not to let your heart rule your head. I'd always recommend entering into the marriage in an informed way, fully aware of how your rights will change once you've tied the knot.
"This will hopefully avoid conflict and misunderstanding if the unfortunate should ever happen and the relationship breaks down. Things can sometimes get messy, particularly if the split is acrimonious and this is usually the result of confusion from not fully understanding things from the outset."
According to the latest available figures, around 270,000 marriages take place in England and Wales each year with Mrs Straw believing romance is far from dead. And despite national divorce rates between 2004 and 2005 totalling 155,0522, Mrs Straw's caseload includes people itching to get hitched for a second or third time.
Re-marriage legal advice
She said: "Divorce and re-marriage is much more acceptable than it once was and people aren't tied into unhappy marriages or frowned upon for looking for love again after a previous marriage has broken down or a partner has passed away.
"There is still a great deal of confusion among couples, married or co-habiting, in relation to their rights and entitlements. In England and Wales there is no such thing as a common law husband or wife and relationships outside marriage have no special status. However, things do change once you're married and understanding exactly where you stand legally is important."
According to Mrs Straw, the most prominent differences between couples who co-habit and those that are married are around money and possessions, children, death and inheritance, housing, medical consent and what happens when ending the relationship.
Money & Possessions
If a co-habiting couple have separate bank accounts and one partner dies, any balance in the account will be the property of the estate and cannot be used until the estate is settled. If a married couple has a joint bank account, the money is jointly owned regardless of who put it into the account and upon death of one partner, the whole account immediately becomes the property of the other. This includes any debts relating to the account.
Although any land, property, savings or investments held before marriage belong to that person, any property owned will be taken into account when arriving at a financial settlement on divorce. For co-habiting couples, if one person gives the other housekeeping money, anything bought with that money would usually belong to the person giving the money. For married couples, a court would normally divide the possessions equally between husband and wife.
For unmarried couples, the father has no automatic parental responsibility for a child unless they obtain a court order, make a formal agreement with the mother or register the child's birth together with the child's mother. As an unmarried mother, sole responsibility for the child lies with them unless one of the previously mentioned is done.
Married parents have a parental responsibility, which continues until the child is 18 years old. However, whether married or not, both parents have a financial responsibility to support the child.
Death & Inheritance
If one partner of an unmarried couple dies without leaving a will, the surviving partner will not automatically inherit anything unless the couple owned the property jointly. If a married partner dies without making a will, the other will inherit all or some of the estate.
Both married partners have a right to remain in the matrimonial home irrespective of who bought it or who has a mortgage on it. If one partner in an unmarried couple has sole ownership on the property, the other has no rights to remain in the home if they are asked to leave by the owner.
Nobody is entitled to give consent to medical treatment for another adult however, unmarried women can take decisions on contraception and abortion without having to ask her partner and either partner can decide to be sterilised without the consent of the other.
This echoes the case of Nicole Appleton and Robbie Williams, when the All Saints star took the decision to have an abortion while she was engaged to Robbie without telling him about the pregnancy until it was all over.
Ending a Relationship
An unmarried couple can separate informally without the intervention of a court. A married couple will need to go to court to end the marriage formally and both have the right to stay in the marital home until there has either been a divorce or the court has ordered one partner to leave.
Married couples also have a legal obligation to support the other financially in the form of maintenance.
Said Mrs Straw: "While it may seem unromantic to think about relationships turning sour around Valentines Day, it's safe to say that couples who fully understand the nature of their commitment are giving themselves - and their future happiness - the best possible start."