The expression, ‘common law husband or wife’, seems to have gained a toehold in the mind of the British public. And many people think that if a couple who don’t have children live together for long enough, there are certain legal consequences that arise. The fact is this is completely untrue.
No matter how long a couple live together, there’s no right to claim maintenance from each other (though it’s a different matter when there are children involved). There’s also no right to claim against any property or against any business unless there’s a legally claimable interest arising for some other reason.
Property in one party’s name
In certain circumstances, it might be possible to make a claim. But you would have to establish that acts were done or promises were made that would give rise to the person who does not in law own the property to believe that, because of what was done or said, they now have a claim to it.
Also, there may be other requirements that you have to meet before the court would recognise such a claim. For example, the claiming party has in some way acted to their detriment.
Making a claim for a share of a property that is held in the sole name of another party is difficult and usually has nothing to do with the length of the relationship.
There are different ways in which you can own a house as a couple:
Buying a house together as joint tenants has nothing to do with renting a property. Most couples who buy a property do so as joint tenants. This has certain immediate legal consequences, including:
- The house is joint owned by both parties with an equal share
- When one party dies their share passes to the survivor
The above factors are not affected by the financial contribution that either party might have made to the purchase. It will not matter if one party has put in all the money to fund the purchase and the other party has contributed nothing. It will not matter who pays the mortgage or the household bills. The law will say that each party owns the house on a 50/50 basis. If the couple break up then they’re both entitled to 50% of the net value of the property.
The other consequence of owning a house as a joint tenant is that a will doesn’t affect what happens if the person dies. When a person draws their last breath their share of the house is then owned by the other party. A will is then read. Then, in effect, the deceased’s share of the house no longer exists and can’t be bequeathed.
Tenants in common
A couple can own a house together but as tenants in common. Owning a house this way allows them to own it in unequal shares. For example, one party can own 75% and the other 25%. (There have been cases where the percentage holding has been challenged, but this is rare.)
The other advantage (or disadvantage) of owning as tenants in common is that that person’s share on death can be bequeathed. Or if there’s no will then it will pass according to the laws of intestacy. It doesn’t pass automatically to the joint owner.
It’s crucial that if a couple buy a house as tenants in common that they also make a will at the same time. This is to make sure both parties know what’s going to happen to the other party’s share of the house in the unfortunate event of death. If one has a will, even if you want your share of the property to go to someone else other than your partner, you could still make provision that your partner should be allowed to stay in the house for a certain period of time before the person who’s receiving your share of the house is allowed to sell it.
It’s sensible before you start living together to decide who’s going to contribute what and who’s going to pay what. And also what’s going to happen if you separate. You can put all this in writing in what’s called a cohabitation agreement.
Discussing all the issues beforehand is likely to make the relationship stronger. Each party will know exactly what their responsibilities are and what’s going to happen in the unfortunate event of separation or death.