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Unmarried Cohabitants Splitting Up

Breaking up is extremely difficult. Unfortunately, in these times breaking up is an experience we are statistically more likely to encounter than at any time in the past. Long gone are the days when a marriage is for life and increasingly, couples are opting to cohabitate rather than go to through the expense of a wedding. Breaking up when not married is an equally trying time between couples and the law is less commonly understood when cohabitants decide to split up.

Once the decision has been made to take a trip down separate paths, the task of splitting assets can quickly turn what seems the most harmonious split into a mess of lawyers and a mountain of legal fees. This is when affairs can turn nasty and it is important to understand the rights and the law of each individual, around which there are some well entrenched myths.

The first misconception is that of “common law” husband or wife – most UK citizens are under the false impression that this is as a legal recognition of cohabitants who have spent more than two years together. To clarify matters, there is no such thing in English law and there has not been since the Marriage Act of 1763. Marriage is the on recognised relationship recognised by the courts and as such, there is no guaranteed fifty-fifty split awarded to either of the cohabitants. Put simply - straight, gay, friends or lovers it makes no difference, it’s every man/woman for his/her self.

Property is normally the largest problem in the area of disagreement between parting couples and if the necessary arrangements haven’t been made beforehand, it is entirely possible that one of the partners can walk away with the lot. As with most things in life, the key to avoiding these types of situations is forward planning.

It is normally at the purchasing stage when one of two types of co-ownership agreements can be decided upon – “joint tenants” or “tenants in common”. With joint tenancy both parties own the property and each hold it in trust for the other. This means that if one owner should die, then the property automatically passes to the co-owner. This is an equal share arrangement and is the basis for most property arrangements between married couples, although it is by no means limited to married couples. Tenants in common own a specific share of the property which forms part of their estate. This can be any split required and caters for unequal shares in a property. However with tenants in common both co-owners are bound by the agreement in law until the property is sold or one party dies when their share forms part of their estate. It is worth considering which option might work best in your relationship.

The Law Society recognizes the outdated attitude within today’s law and has been calling for reform. It should be noted that the Law Society’s proposal is not that unmarried couples have the same rights as married couples, but they do propose that limited support should be provided to assist in one party starting over. The Law Commission is compiling a report on the property rights of cohabitants, although in some corners it has already been nicknamed “The Mistresses’ Charter” and no quick resolution is thought achievable at this time.

Finally, With regard to other assets, it can sometimes be difficult to decide who owns which album, DVD or photo. A properly prepared cohabitation agreement can eliminate some of this discourse and is generally recommended. Without one, it is just possible that a judge may end up deciding for the both of you who will own what.

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