If you are in an unmarried couple and your relationship breaks down, you may be surprised to find that you don’t have the same rights as people who are married or in a civil partnership.

This means that if you decide to separate you don’t automatically have the right to share in each other’s finances and property.

Whether you are moving in together or just planning for the future, it is a good idea to seek legal advice as there are steps you can take to give yourself certainty and avoid potential unfairness. We are widely recognised as one of the UK's leading family law teams and are accredited by independent legal guides Chambers & Partners and The Legal 500, so we are well placed to guide you through the legal process.

We can help you to work through and formalise your arrangements in a Separation Agreement, which sets out how you will split your finances, assets and childcare arrangements.

If you are considering moving in with your partner without getting married, we could help you put together a Cohabitation Agreement. This clarifies:

  • Who owns what, including your home, joint bank accounts and belongings
  • How payment of household bills is to be divided
  • Maintenance payments for any children, including school fees and payments for housing

Cohabitation Agreements are legally binding and enforceable, giving you real peace of mind and security for the future. We have particular expertise in relationships where one or both parties has significant wealth or owns property overseas.

Working with you, our solicitors can advise you on your situation and take you through every step of the process. Our no-nonsense approach will ensure you understand your options and feel comfortable with every decision you make.

If you require further advice on rights for unmarried couples, please contact us to speak with one of our experts. Call us on 0370 1500 100 or contact us online and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

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Ros Bever, family lawyer
Ros Bever National Head of Family Law Meet the team

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Frequently Asked Questions

What Happens If We Are In A "Common Law Marriage"?

If you live together but are not legally married you are in a 'common law marriage’, which does not give you the same rights in law as a married couple.

In a separation, this means your partner may not have the same obligation to support you – and vice versa.

If you and your partner break up, you may find it more difficult to divide up your property and financial assets compared with a married couple. For example:

  • You'll have no access to your partner's bank accounts, unless they are joint accounts
  • If you separate and don't close a joint account, your partner will be able to access the funds and could run up debts you're responsible for
  • Housing arrangements can become difficult, unless the accommodation is in your joint names
  • Given that you have no legal duty to support your partner, voluntary maintenance agreements may be difficult to enforce.

If you are joint tenants or joint owners of a property, you will have to come to an agreement about how to divide your assets or tenancy. If just one of you rents or owns the property you live in, however, the legal owner or tenant can ask their partner to leave. That said, in most cases it pays to discuss these issues calmly as you may be able to come to an amicable agreement.

It’s important to seek legal advice as soon as possible. Our expert family law team can help you draw up a Separation Agreement that clearly sets out how you will divide your shared assets and who has responsibility for outstanding debts. It doesn't affect your ability to get back together with your partner at a later date, so it is worth considering even for a trial period of separation.

If you are living or thinking about moving in with your partner, you can consider a Cohabitation Agreement. This sets out how you and your partner will live together and who is responsibility for what regarding your finances. It might not sound romantic but it can give you security and peace of mind.

Visit our Separation Agreements or Cohabitation Agreements pages for more information on how we can help you.

For more advice on rights for unmarried couples, call our family law solicitors today. We have decades of experience in resolving these complex issues, advising you in a clear and transparent way so you know exactly what your options are. Call us on 0370 1500 100 or contact us online and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

What About Children?

It is important to work out whether you have parental responsibility if you are in an unmarried couple and are separating.

Parental responsibility gives you the legal right to make decisions about issues such as your child’s education, religion and medical treatment. It also means you have to consult with – or be consulted on such decisions by - the other legal parent.

Unmarried mothers automatically get parental responsibility for a child from birth, but fathers or partners may not. Our expert lawyers will be able to advise you on this and what your options are.

Once you have established parental responsibility, you will need to agree on a range of issues with your partner regarding your children. These can include:

  • Who the child lives with – and whether they can relocate within England and Wales, or internationally
  • Contact – who the child can visit and have other forms of contact with them
  • Child maintenance arrangements – this will include issues such as school fees etc.

We believe it is best to reach an agreement out of court wherever possible. Our trained negotiators and mediators can support you and your partner to agree a settlement that suits everyone.

We also understand that an agreement is not always possible. If you need a court to decide on all of the issues above – known as a Child Arrangements Order – our experienced lawyers will support you every step of the way.

Every situation is different, which is why you need an experienced legal team who has led, changed and challenged UK family law. If you would like to discuss your circumstances and see how we can help you, call us on 0370 1500 100 or get in touch online and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

What About Debts?

Any debts in your name are your responsibility, and any debts in your partner's name are their responsibility.

Issues can occur when debts – such as an overdraft on a joint bank account, bank loan or mortgage – have been accrued in both your names.

You both have responsibility in such cases, so if you decide to break up it is important that you come to a quick agreement about how these will be paid, to avoid defaulting on any liabilities. Without this formal agreement, your partner could continue to run up debts that you are jointly liable for.

It is important to seek legal advice as soon as possible. We have years of experience supporting unmarried couples who are separating, helping them reach satisfactory agreements.

To find out more, or get advice on any other aspect of family law, call us on 0370 1500 100 or contact us online and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

I live in Scotland, can Irwin Mitchell help me?

Our expert family law team works with a number of trusted partners to help our clients with family law issues in Scotland.

We’ll be your point of contact and manage the entire process for you throughout. You’ll get frequent progress updates and we’ll break down any legal jargon into plain English so you’re always in the loop.

To find out more about how we can help, give us a call on 0370 1500 100 or contact us online.

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