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Divorce Myth 2: Couples who live together without marrying become common law spouses

Divorce Myth 2: Couples who live together without marrying become common law spouces

How do I become a common law spouse?

Put simply, you don’t! The suggestion that a couple’s relationship acquires some sort of legal status because they have lived together for 6 months/2 years/5 years etc is a complete myth. The concepts of ‘common law husband’ or ‘common law wife’ don’t exist.

So where does the term ‘common law spouse’ come from?

There are exceptional circumstances where the English courts have upheld a couple being married even if they have not followed any sort of formal legal ceremony. Examples have included couples abroad who have undergone a local ceremony and, following the war, couples who had been in prisoner of war camps or interned in foreign countries who could not satisfy the formal legal requirements.

Can I call myself a ‘common law husband’ or ‘common law wife’?

Yes, obviously people can refer to their relationship however they like, but the problem comes when it is mistakenly thought that the relationship gives rise to legal rights and responsibilities. 

What is the correct term instead of ‘common law spouse’ then?

Our law recognises married couples and, at the moment, same sex couples who have entered into a civil partnership. Every other couple is legally defined as an ‘unmarried couple’.

What are our rights and responsibilities towards one another?

Couples in unmarried relationships have no claims against one another’s income, capital or pensions.  They can live in their partner’s house for 30 years and acquire no interest in it whatsoever. They can give up work to raise a family and not be entitled to any maintenance if the relationship ends. 

What about children?

Parents’ responsibilities towards their children are an entirely different matter and include the responsibility to contribute to a child’s financial needs during their minority (and sometimes beyond through non university further education). It is also possible for one partner to bring a claim against the other to satisfy children’s housing and other capital needs in certain circumstances. 

So what steps can we take to protect one another?

It is possible to put protections in place if you and your partner want to share rights and responsibilities without going through a formal marriage ceremony. We can advise not only on this but also on the legal consequences of relationship breakdown.  Why not contact us for a free initial discussion?

If you would like to set up an initial conversation then please contact me at our Colchester office on 01206 217320 or alternatively you can email me at philip.hoddell@birkettlong.co.uk