Couples who live together but aren’t married sometimes refer to their boyfriend or girlfriend as their common-law partner. But what does that actually mean in legal terms?
Well, to be blunt, not a lot, as you’re not related to your partner either by blood or by marriage. So if you die suddenly, they won’t automatically inherit your assets.
The only way to be sure that your partner will receive your wealth in the event of your death, without getting married, is to make sure you have a Will in place.
With a legally binding Will, you can lay out exactly how you want all your money, property, investments and other assets to be distributed after you die. That means you can leave some or all of your wealth to your partner, even if you’re not married.
But if you die without a Will, the Rules of Intestacy state that your inheritance must go to your closest living blood relatives.
That could conceivably mean that if you’ve been cohabiting with a partner for many years and have children together, the children would be first in line to receive your inheritance, and your partner wouldn’t have any right to inherit anything at all.
Naturally, that could be very distressing to your partner, at a time when they’d already been coping with a massive personal loss and possibly struggling financially without the income that you’d normally contribute to the household.
So if you’re not planning to get married, you should at the very least draw up a valid Will, to ensure your partner inherits whatever you want to leave to them.
It’s a simple way to guarantee that your partner is financially protected in the event of your death, and make certain that a distressing situation isn’t made significantly worse.
Common law marriage is a common myth
More and more couples are choosing to live together, purchase a property and have children without getting married.
In fact, it’s the fastest growing family type in England and Wales, with the number of couples cohabiting more than doubling to 3.6 million in the last quarter of a century. That means about one in five couples currently living together aren’t married.
But worryingly, many people don’t realise that cohabiting doesn’t bring any legal protection, such as an automatic claim to a partner’s estate if they die.
According to recent figures from the Women and Equalities Committee, 46% of people in England and Wales mistakenly assume that cohabitants living together form a common law marriage, automatically gaining rights equal to a marriage or civil partnership.
As a result, it’s calling for changes in the law, such as providing cohabitants with the right to inherit under the rules of intestacy, and reviewing the Inheritance Tax scheme so that cohabiting partners are placed on an equal footing with married couples and civil partners.
The committee has also recommended the government “urgently” launch a public information campaign, as the prevalence of common law marriage can have “significant consequences, with many falsely believing they have legal protections which turn out to be non-existent”.
Caroline Nokes, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, said: “The reality of modern relationships is that many of us choose – for many reasons – not to get married, even when in a committed, long-term relationship.
“It is unfair that these individuals have inferior protections to their married or civilly partnered peers. Deciding not to marry is a valid choice and not one which should be penalised in law.”
Of course, there is no guarantee that the committee’s recommendations will be implemented by the government, and if it were the case, it could be many years away.
So for now, it’s really important that you make sure you know exactly what your rights are and take appropriate steps to make certain your wishes are fulfilled in the event of your death, such as writing a Will.
It could make a huge difference to you, your partner and your wider family, and give you a level of protection and certainty that can be invaluable.
If you have any questions about managing your wealth and how you can make sure your assets go to your chosen beneficiaries, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.