Living together as a couple

Living together as a couple does not give you the same rights and responsibilities as you would have by getting married or forming a registered civil partnership. It is important to understand what the legal position is and how you can protect yourselves in case your relationship ends or one of you dies

Your home

Unlike marriage or civil partnership, living together as a couple does not automatically give you rights to the home you share. Problems can occur – particularly when one of you moves into a property that the other owns or rents.

If the property is rented, only the tenant(s) named in the rental agreement generally has the right to live there – and responsibility for the rent. If you are not a named tenant:

  • you are likely to need the landlord’s consent to move in;
  • the named tenant can ask you to move out at any time (after giving reasonable notice);
  • you have no right to stay if the named tenant decides to leave (though you might be able to agree a new tenancy with the landlord).

Similar rules apply if the property is owned by just one of you. The owner of the property is the only one who is entitled to live there – anyone else can be asked to leave. The owner can also make decisions – such as selling the property – without consulting his or her partner. However, even where only one of you owns the property, the other may have some rights (eg to a share of the money if the property is sold). For example, this can happen if:

  • the owner has agreed in writing that the non-owner is entitled to a share of the home;
  • the non-owner contributes financially (eg paying part of the mortgage) to the property on the understanding that this entitles him or her to a share;
  • the non-owner has acted to his or her own detriment (eg giving up a job) on the understanding that this entitles him or her to a share;
  • a partner with children applies to the court for the right to continue living there in order to ensure the children’s welfare.

Owning a property in joint names can help to protect both partners but has its own potential pitfalls. For example:

  • You cannot force your partner to sell the home if you decide to leave, unless you apply for a court order.
  • Even if you contributed most of the costs of buying the home, you would normally only be entitled to a half share unless you had agreed otherwise.
  • If your partner walks out on you, you are likely to be liable for the full amount of any mortgage payments.

Whatever your circumstances, a written cohabitation agreement detailing what contributions you will each make and what share of the home you are each entitled to minimises the risk of future disputes.

Possessions and finances

You have no legal duty to support each other financially, either while you are living together as a couple or if you separate.  Nor do you automatically share ownership of your possessions, savings, investments and so on.

In general, ownership is unaffected by the fact that you live together as a couple. So:

  • if you already owned something before you started to live together, it continues to be your sole property;
  • if you buy something yourself using your own money, it is your property;
  • if you buy something together, you own it in the shares that you each contributed to the purchase price unless agreed otherwise;
  • if your partner gave something to you as a gift, you own it (though proving that a gift was made can be difficult unless there is written evidence).

Again, an appropriate written cohabitation agreement can help avoid disputes: for example, setting out what contributions you will each make to a joint account and how ownership of any items bought using the money will be shared.

If you have any debts in joint names such as credit cards, you are normally each liable for the debt: if your partner fails to pay, you can be pursued for the full amount. You may also both be liable for household bills.

Your taxes continue to be assessed in the same way as any other individuals. However, any benefits you claim will be assessed on the basis that you are a couple. This means that your partner’s income will be taken into account and your entitlement to benefits may be reduced.

Responsibility for children

Legally, you only have a role in important decisions about children (such as their education and religion) if you have parental responsibility for them. If the parents of children are not married, only the mother automatically has parental responsibility for the children. The mother’s partner only has parental responsibility if:

  • he is named as the father on the birth certificate for a child born after December 2003;
  • he enters into a parental responsibility agreement with the mother, obtains from the court a parental responsibility order or child arrangements order or they get married;
  • he is registered as the child’s guardian and all other individuals with parental responsibility have died (including the mother).

 If you separate, rather different considerations apply:

  • Decisions about who the children should live with and what contact rights the other should have are based on what is in the children’s best interests (rather than on who has parental responsibility).
  • If your children live with your former partner rather than you, you may be required to pay maintenance.
  • The same principles apply for stepchildren whom you have treated as part of your family and helped support financially.
  • Ideally, childcare arrangements will be agreed between you but either of you can apply to the court to help resolve things.

In effect, children are treated in the same way as when a married couple get divorced. See our factsheet on Children and divorce.

What happens on the death of a partner?

An unmarried cohabitant has no automatic right to inherit if his or her partner dies, although they may be a beneficiary under the other’s will. If you are a beneficiary, any assets you receive may be subject to inheritance tax (IHT) as normal – there is no exemption for unmarried couples.

If you have lived together ‘as man and wife’ for at least two years, or if you can show that you were financially dependent on your partner, you can make a claim for a financial settlement even if you were not a beneficiary of the will. However, this can involve a complex and expensive dispute with the other beneficiaries; even if you are successful, you may only be entitled to a limited share of your partner’s assets.

If you owned your home together, the form of legal ownership has a major impact. If you owned your home as ‘joint tenants’, you will automatically continue to own the (entire) home if your partner dies. But if you were ‘tenants in common’, your partner’s share is dealt with under the terms of his or her will. If you rented your home, your rights to stay on depend on the type of tenancy, whose name(s) it is in and your landlord.

You will not be entitled to state benefits such as bereavement allowance or a state pension based on your former partner’s National Insurance contributions. Whether you have any entitlement under private pension or life insurance arrangements depends on the terms of the particular scheme.

Cohabitation agreements

Written agreements can help protect you from the risks you could face if you separate or if your partner dies.

Drawing up a cohabitation agreement can help you think through some of the key issues in your relationship. Though not all of the agreement may be legally enforceable, it can help reduce the likelihood of disputes and make any disputes easier to resolve. For example, an agreement might cover issues such as how bills will be shared, whether you will have any joint accounts, and what roles you will each have in terms of childcare, household chores and so on.

Other possibilities include:

  • clear arrangements covering ownership of the home and what rights each of you have to live there;
  • taking steps to get parental responsibility for children;
  • appointing each other to hold a lasting power of attorney (so that if one of you is no longer capable, the other can take decisions on his or her behalf);
  • reviewing your wills and ensuring that you have each made appropriate provision for the other;
  • checking – and if appropriate, changing - key financial arrangements such as pension schemes, life insurances, savings and investments.

For further information on cohabition, see: