What to do when a cohabiting relationship breaks down

Cohabiting couples are the fastest growing household structure in the UK and after three national lockdowns in the last year, this trend shows no sign of slowing down.

Cohabiting couples should be aware of the law, and make sure that their rights are protected with legal agreement.

The Office for National Statistics states that approximately 60 per cent of the population in the UK live as a couple and while the majority are married, around one in five are cohabiting couples.

As many couples chose to lockdown together, the result has been a transition to a more permanent living arrangement between them.

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But if the relationship breaks down, it’s important to know what to do.

Property buyer GoodMove gives its top tips for a cohabiting couple in the event of separation:

Marriage vs cohabiting

Under UK law, cohabiting couples don’t have the same legal rights as married couples, meaning if you and your partner were to separate, you wouldn’t be automatically entitled to shared property or pensions, and you wouldn’t be able to seek financial assistance either.

If you separate when you’re married, you have a right to not be evicted from a family home.

However, when you’re unmarried and living with a partner you don’t have the same right of occupation to your property.

In the event of a separation, you’d generally keep the assets that are in your name, and your ex-partner would do the same.

However, if you’re unmarried but bought a home in both your names, it’s important to bear in mind that you wouldn’t necessarily get a 50/50 split in the home if you chose to sell. If it goes to court, factors such as the split in rent and mortgage payments would come into play, meaning you might not get a fair deal.

And if your partner dies without a will, you wouldn’t be entitled to their estate either as a spouse generally would.

This all sounds a bit bleak – but not to panic. There are certain legal documents you can put in place to protect yourself against these things happening in the event of separation.

Cohabitation contracts

A cohabitation contract, or living together agreement, is a legal agreement that outlines the rights and obligations you and your partner have towards each other while you live together.

As there aren’t any cohabiting laws that decide how assets are divided, making a contract like this can help to make things easier if you do separate while living together.

Declarations of trust

One step further than a cohabitation contract, a declaration trust is a formal 
legal document that outlines what will happen to your shared property and how you’d like it to be divided in the event of separation.

It might not be something you’d like to think about as you move into a new home with your partner but making a declaration of trust means that you’re both protected and have legal rights if something goes wrong down the line.

Nima Ghasri, director at Good Move, said: “Living together is a huge and important step for any couple. But cohabiting couples should be aware of the law, and make sure that their cohabiting rights are protected with legal agreements like a declaration of trust or cohabitation agreements in the event of a separation.

“Although nobody wants to think the worse when you’re moving in with a partner, it’s important to make sure you and your assets are protected.”

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James Mitchinson