Although the terms common-law husband or wife are frequently used to describe a couple who live together, these relationships do not have any legal recognition. There is no such thing as common law marriage.
Nevertheless, many people hold the belief that couples who live together in a settled relationship will, at some point, acquire the status of common law marriage and thereby obtain the same rights and obligations that they would have if they had been married or entered a Civil Partnership.
Frequently asked questions
The realisation that there is no such thing as common law marriage tends to lead to a number of questions, and I have set out a few of the most common questions I have been asked below:
- Surely, if I have lived with my partner for 20 years the law will treat us as if we are married, wont it? No. It does not matter whether you have been in a relationship for 10, 20 or 30 years. If you are not married (or in a civil partnership) then the law views you as legal strangers.
- What if we have children together, surely then I am treated as if I am married to my partner? No.Having children together does not mean that you are treated as though you are married. It does mean that there are some applications that can be made relating to finances. However, these are much more limited, not nearly as generous as if you were married and, whether they are viable will depend upon the circumstances of each case.
- What does this actually mean in practice? The practical implications will depend upon everyone’s individual circumstances, however, it tends to mean that the financially weaker party is left significantly worse off then they would have been if they were married.
- What should we do? That is a personal choice to every couple. There is no obligation for anyone to get married (or enter into a civil partnership) and nor would that necessarily be the right choice for every couple.There are many perfectly valid reasons why a couple may prefer to remain unmarried. However, in those circumstances they may wish to consider entering into a cohabitation agreement (sometimes also known as Living Together Agreements) which would help to provide certainty to both parties on how their finances would be dealt with and can also help on the practical issues such as who pays for what?
Ultimately, whether, someone chooses to get married or not is a matter for them and in no way I am saying that marriage should be entered into lightly or as a matter of course. It is a serious commitment which entails obligations and responsibilities for both parties, the extent of which are often not fully appreciated by couples who do choose to get married!
However, the simple fact that not getting married does not require a conscious decision does not mean that the potential consequences are any less important.
Indeed, if the relationship breaks down then, for the financially weaker party, the consequences are just as important.