Common law man and wife: facts and fiction

Most rights between couples are established either through marriage or civil partnership – the kind of rights that you associate with couples, such as sharing the marital home and possessions, having a claim to pensions, savings, etc. But those rights don’t apply if you only live with someone. Forget what you may have heard about ‘common law’ man and wife. It’s a common fallacy – you’ll even find it repeated in newspapers – that if a woman lives with a man in his house for six months, she will acquire rights and she will be regarded as his common law wife – but it’s not true. It doesn’t matter whether you live with someone for six months or six years, you do not automatically acquire rights over that other person just by cohabiting.

There are two main ways in which rights can be acquired by people who cohabit. The first is by direct or indirect contribution to the value of a property, as set out in the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act (TOLATA) (1996). If you buy a house and register it in your name, but your partner has contributed money towards the purchase price, he or she might have a financial claim against your property. If they make no contribution to the purchase price but later contribute to home improvements, either financially or by helping to do work on the property that can be given a monetary value, then again, this may form the basis of a claim. But if your partner makes no contribution, they have no claim under TOLATA, no matter how many years they live with you.

The other main way that cohabitees establish rights is through Schedule 1 of The Children’s Act (1989). This only applies if you have had a child or children together. If your ex-partner has care of the children but the house is yours, they can make a claim against you for the property, so that the essential needs of those children in terms of having a roof over their heads, can be met. However, even if their claim is successful, the responsibility to provide for those needs only continues until the child reaches 18; it’s not for life. So at that point, your partner cannot continue to claim an interest in the property.

It’s important then that you don’t trust hearsay in legal matters, as what you hear or read may not be accurate. Instead, we would advise that you consult a solicitor. For straight-talking legal advice about your case, contact Andrew Isaacs Solicitors, so that you can be sure that you have the right information about your particular circumstances.