The Common Law Marriage Myth

by clumsylawyer

While we were at the Registration Office giving notice of marriage the other day, A Man spotted this postcard in a display:

Postcard published by Advice Services Alliance. Image from advicenow.org.uk.

He pointed it out to me because he knows that the ‘Common Law Marriage Myth’ is one of my hugest pet peeves.  In the UK, co-called Common Law Marriage does not exist.  However, many many people believe that if you’ve lived together for a certain period of time (many even believe it’s as short as two years) you are automatically entitled to the same rights as a married couple.  This is simply not true.

A marriage (or indeed a civil partnership), as well as being an indication of a relationship between two people is a legal agreement.  It signals the birth of certain rights and responsibilities which each partner has towards one another, as well as rights against certain state controlled financial and property transactions (for example, pensions, inheritance and court-controlled divorce settlements).  When you are cohabiting, there is no definitive date at which the relationship becomes ‘serious’, and as such the government has far less control over your rights and responsibilities.

Now, I’m not saying that this is right.  There are plenty of couples who don’t want to marry or enter into a civil partnership but would still like to have similar rights, responsibilities and recognition as married couples.  There are many many unmarried couples whose relationships are far healthier, more loving, longer term and more supportive than a great number of marriages which may have soured, become abusive or even been entered into as part of a sham.  However, it is also important to recognise that there may be couples (not to mention long-term flat-mates) who choose not to marry because they don’t want the rights, responsibilities and recognition of a married couple.  To have them foist upon them simply due to cohabitation would be just as wrong as to deny rights to the long-term unmarried couples mentioned above.

Changes are slowly happening, but for the most part, the acquisition of rights of the type afforded to married couples requires positive action by the couple in question.  I won’t discuss this too much further (I did plenty of that during my law degree!) but will say that the most important thing is to spread the word!  Education is the key!  If you’d like to learn more about the rights and responsibilities of both married and unmarried couples, and the action you can take to ensure you stand where you want, visit advicenow.org.uk/livingtogether for lots and lots of useful information.

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