City lawyers urge cohabiting couples to protect themselves from the consequences of relationship breakdown

Lisa Ginesi

Professionals at a City of London-based law firm are urging cohabiting couples to protect themselves from the consequences of relationship breakdown.

Lawyers at Carter Lemon Camerons LLP, say that many couples are under the misapprehension that by living together for an extended period, they qualify for the rights of ‘common law marriage’.

Lisa Ginesi, a Partner at Carter Lemon Camerons LLP, said: “’Common law marriage’ is an unfortunate myth, which has led many people in cohabiting relationships to wrongly believe that they are protected in law if their relationship breaks down.

“That is not the case. In fact, there are very few protections in law for cohabiting couples and there is no process analogous to divorce to distribute wealth and assets fairly at the end of a relationship.”

She said that this state of affairs leaves some cohabitees in a very perilous situation.

“Where one partner has given up a career to look after children or their name is not on the deeds to the family home, cohabitees can be especially vulnerable and at risk of destitution.

“Even if such circumstances do not lead to destitution, they can sometimes precipitate expensive and drawn-out property litigation, where a non-owning partner claims a ‘beneficial interest’ in a property,” added Lisa.

The solution, she said, is for couples to draw-up cohabitation agreements, setting out the arrangements that will apply in the event that relationship breaks down.

“A cohabitation agreement is a cost-effective way to ensure that both partners are protected, should the relationship break down.

“It means that people can discuss rationally how wealth and assets can be divided equitably at the end of the relationship and can help avoid costly legal battles or one partner being left destitute,” said Lisa.

She added that, in order to ensure that the agreement can be enforced, couples should seek independent legal advice.

Lisa said that another option that is becoming increasingly popular with co-habiting couples is the use of a Declaration of Trust to define their interests in the property.

“This is a cost-effective and relatively straightforward way of ensuring that partners in a cohabiting relationship have an appropriate interest in the family home. Declarations of Trust can be registered with the Land Registry and can be enforced through the courts,” said Lisa.

She added: “Where a cohabiting couple is buying a home together, they can opt to purchase the property as ‘tenants in common’. This can mean that different shares can be attributed to each partner and that these shares do not automatically pass to the other owner on death.

“The most appropriate course of action very much depends on the specific circumstances of each couple, so it is important to seek legal advice at an early stage about how best to protect wealth and assets in a cohabiting relationship.”