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The legal differences between cohabitation, marriage, and civil partnerships

Graysons’ family law solicitors in Sheffield & Chesterfield explain the legal rights and differences of cohabiting partners, civil partnerships, and marriages.

What are the legal differences between cohabitation, marriage & civil partnerships?

Whether you are cohabiting, in a marriage, or a civil partnership, it is important that you understand your legal rights. Many people wrongly assume that if they live together like a married couple,  contribute to bills and co-mingle their finances – that they enjoy the same legal protections as a married couple or those in a civil partnership. However, this is not the case. While married couples and those in a civil partnership enjoy almost identical legal rights and protections, those who are cohabiting have minimal legal rights should the relationship come to an end. 

Here, Graysons’ family law solicitors in Sheffield and Chesterfield outline some of the key legal differences between cohabitation, marriage, and civil partnerships. First, we explore cohabitation, what it means, what legal rights you have, and how a cohabitation agreement can offer protection.  We then outline the legal rights married and civil partners enjoy. Keep on reading to learn more about these three different types of partnerships. 

What is cohabitation? 

Cohabitation means that you are living together. Many people who cohabit believe that this, in effect, creates a common law marriage, giving the same legal protections as married couples have. However, this is not the case, and there is no status in English law for cohabiting couples. 

What legal rights do cohabiting partners have? 

While you may share your life with your significant other in the same way that a married couple or those in a civil partnership do, if you are cohabiting it is important to note that you do not have the same legal protections. This often creates problems in the event of the relationship breaking down.   When married couples or those in a civil partnership decide to end their relationship both parties have a legal right to their fair share of assets, including property and inherited property, as well as  financial maintenance. This is not the case with cohabiting couples, regardless of how long you have been together or even if you have children together. As a result, some cohabiting individuals can face financial hardship should their relationship come to an end, especially those who have sacrificed a career and lost out on paying into a pension to stay at home with a child. 

If you are cohabiting, then you do not automatically get any rights to the home your share, be it rented or owned by your partner. Additionally, cohabiting couples do not have a legal duty to support each other financially, or have an automatic share of any assets, investments, savings, or possessions – even if you believe you have contributed to these. Finally, cohabiting partners have no automatic right to any inheritance if their partner dies. This can be especially problematic if a partner dies without a will, as the Rules of Intestacy prioritise blood relatives, no matter how long the relationship has lasted. Even if there is a will, any assets a cohabiting partner is left may be subject to inheritance tax. 

What is a cohabitation agreement? 

Cohabitation agreements, sometimes referred to as a cohabitation contract or living together agreement, can help offer some protection and help reduce the likelihood of disputes.  Although they are not legally binding in England and Wales, should you end up in court a judge will take a professionally drawn up cohabitation agreement, such as one written by an experienced family law solicitor, into serious consideration.

Some key things that can be covered in a cohabitation agreement include parental responsibility for any children, arrangements regarding ownership of any joint assets including property, and how these will be split should the relationship come to an end, as well as dealing with financial contributions and agreements on how you will manage your day-to-day finances. 

Other protections cohabiting couples can have in place include a valid will and a lasting power of attorney, ensuring your cohabiting partner can make decisions on your behalf should you no longer have the mental capacity to do so yourself. 

If you are cohabiting and want to better understand your legal rights, or want to put in place a professionally drawn-up cohabitation agreement, a will, or a lasting power of attorney, then contact a family law solicitor, such as Graysons’ team of expert solicitors in Sheffield and Chesterfield. 

What is marriage in the UK? 

When you get married in the UK, you enter into a legally recognised union. Those who are married also enjoy several legal benefits that cohabiting couples do not benefit from. 

What legal rights do married couples have in the UK? 

Married couples enjoy a number of legal rights and protections, including tax, pensions, and inheritance benefits, that cohabiting couples do not. For example:

  • If your partner dies without a will you will automatically inherit some, or all of the estate, depending on its value
  • Any assets you inherit from your spouse are free from inheritance tax 
  • Married couples can transfer assets, including property, to their partner free from capital gains tax 
  • If you decide to end your marriage, you will be entitled to a fair share of any assets, and you may be entitled to financial support. You also have a right to continue living in the marital home until the divorce is finalised, or a court orders you to leave the marital home. If you are considering ending your marriage and want more advice on your legal rights, then contact Graysons’ team of family law solicitors in Sheffield and Chesterfield. 

What is a civil partnership?

Just like a marriage, a civil partnership is a legally recognised union that gives certain legal rights and protections that cohabitating couples do not enjoy. Some people opt to enter into a civil partnership instead of a marriage due to personal religious beliefs, because they have been married before, or object to the traditional associations of marriage. Thanks to a landmark decision by the Supreme court in 2019, anyone can now enter into a civil partnership in the UK, as long as you are both over the age of 16, you are not already married or in a civil partnership, you are not close blood relatives, and you have lived in the same area of England and Wales for at least a week. 

What legal rights do civil partners have in the UK?  

Those in a civil partnership enjoy almost identical legal rights and protections to married couples, including tax benefits and pensions and inheritance provision. For example:

  • If your partner dies without a will you will automatically inherit some, or all of the estate, depending on its value
  • Any assets you inherit from your civil partner are free from inheritance tax 
  • Civil partners can transfer assets, including property, to their partner free from capital gains tax 
  • If you decide to end your civil partnership – known as a dissolution – you will be entitled to a fair share of any assets, and you may be entitled to financial support. You also have a right to continue living in the civil partnership home until the dissolution is finalised, or a court orders you to leave. If you are considering a dissolution and want  more advice on your legal rights, then contact Graysons’ team of family law solicitors in Sheffield and Chesterfield. 

How can Graysons’ family law solicitors in Sheffield and Chesterfield help?

If you need help setting up a living together agreement, or want guidance on your legal rights with regard to a civil partnership, marriage, or cohabitation, then contact our team of expert family law solicitors in Sheffield and Chesterfield today. 

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You can read more about the merger here. Graysons will be pleased to help with your enquiry. Please visit our web pages or contact us directly on 0114 358 9009

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