A case has highlighted the importance of cohabitation agreements after a woman whose partner of 18 years died and did not apply for a divorce or update his will.

Ms Williams lived with her partner, Norman Martin, following the split, however as he had not applied for a divorce or updated his will, this meant that Ms Williams had lived with Mr Martin as “tenants in common”. As a result, when Mr Martin died of a heart attack in 2012, the house was not automatically transferred to Ms Williams, but instead meant that she would have to pay Mr Martin’s estranged wife if she wanted to be the sole owner of the house.

Ms Williams did not have money available to pay Mrs Martin and so the case went to court. Under family law, Mr Martin’s wife had rights to claim against her husband’s share of the house.

Ultimately, Ms Williams’ case finished with a positive conclusion mainly because she brought her claim under inheritance law which required Ms Williams to establish that for two years up to the death of Mr Martin, she had lived in the same household as his wife, or that immediately before his death, she was being maintained either “wholly or partly” by him.

Judge Nigel Gerald said: “Ms Williams’ award for reasonable financial provision against her partner’s estate, which she made under inheritance law, was a fair and reasonable result. This is because the judge believed that it was quite plain that Ms Williams and Mr Martin had in all material respects lived in the same household as husband and wife in a committed and loving relationship in which they expected to spend the rest of their lives.

He also found that the reason Mr Martin did not divorce his wife was “purely financial” and that Mrs Martin and her daughters were “well provided for…the marriage therefore continued in name only”.

So what does it all mean? People wrongly believe that there is a common law wife or common law husband mechanism to protect their rights when they are not married. Well ultimately, this concept does not exist in law. Unmarried couples living together do not automatically have the same rights as a married couple or those people living in a civil partnership.

The recent court case of Ms William is a stark reminder that all unmarried couples who live together should have co-habitation agreements in place detailing who is the property owner and how bills, savings and liabilities are divided up. Should you be unmarried but living with your partner, you should also ensure that your will is updated in which you can have provision for what will happen if your relationship ends.

For married partners who are in a new relationship, this case also highlights the importance of dissolving a marriage by pursuing divorce proceedings and dealing with finances within the divorce.

Hillyer McKeown are experienced in all matters relating to the misconception of “a common law husband or wife”. If you need advice on any aspect of co-habitation, divorce or financial remedy proceedings, please give us a call on 01244 318131 or email [email protected].