Living apart together. What are the consequences for family law?

A couple at a train station platform

‘Living apart together’ (LAT) is a contemporary-day relationship form, accounting for about 10% of the adult population in Britain. In fact, many of those who would generally classify themselves as ‘single’ is in an exclusive, intimate relationship, but they are not living together. In a study, 43% of LATs were under 25, about 30% were between 25-44, and 11% were over 55. 

The term LAT was probably first used by a Dutch journalist in 1978. Despite practical difficulties with measurement and interpretation, the ‘living apart together’ phenomenon has long been recognised in literature and demographic research.

LAT couples spend considerable time together and are monogamous in their relationship. Communication can be face-to-face but also by telephone and online.

The partners regard themselves as a couple and are recognised as such by others. They can be of the same sex, and each partner may live in another household containing other people. They offer each other emotional support but also financial support to varying degrees. Conflict, stress, and obligation are minimised.

This article looks at this phenomenon and asks, ‘Are these people free from the reach of family law?’ and ‘Can this form of relationship be a de facto relationship with financial consequences?

Main reasons for not living with a partner. 

LATs cite four main reasons why they don’t live with a partner.

  • Too early in the relationship.   Some LATs say they are not yet ready to cohabit or haven’t thought about living together.  
  • A preference for not living together. Some people want to keep their own homes because of their career or a time-consuming leisure activity, or they put other responsibilities (such as their children) first. This group is mostly older people who have been married or cohabited before. ‘Living apart together’ creates a new and better life for these people.
  • Financials. The couple cannot afford to live together.
  • Situational. One partner has a job elsewhere or lives in an institution such as a care home or a prison. Sometimes the couple faces family opposition (for example, a partner of a different religion), and it is too intense to try and live together.

Keeping distance in an intimate relationship can also be a way of protecting yourself from abuse or emotional pain or of protecting children. But, on the other hand, some people feel a LAT relationship makes a unique intimacy possible that would be threatened by too close day-to-day contact.

LAT and the law.

In general

The general perception of people in this form of relationship might be that they are free from the reach of family law when it comes to dividing assets when such a relationship ends. However, from a legal perspective, one might consider other factors in deciding whether a LAT relationship isn’t so casual anymore and has crossed a line to become a de facto relationship with financial significance.

LAT, the same as cohabitating?

The question arises if LAT couples in England and Wales should have access to the same legal rights and protection as unmarried cohabitants. After all, many care for and support each other and have a relationship with dependent children.

Yes, the couple in a LAT relationship does not live together, but evidence suggests that LAT is not just a convenient relationship under a different name. Instead, it allows for flexibility, and LAT’s autonomy can enable a person to manage diverse needs and desires. In this way, LAT is both new and conservative.

For some, the goal of a LAT relationship is to maintain a harmonious family unit. The key is consistency; in the future, the law may very well consider this relationship with new eyes. Several themes, such as the presence of children, the existence of commitment, the permanency of the relationship, and the possibility that one party can take advantage of the other, may very well become issues.  

Now, however, LAT is not considered the same as cohabitating in the eyes of the law. Adults in a LAT relationship in England and Wales are legally defined as ‘single.’  

The possible legal consequences of ‘Living Apart Together.’

For the argument, we look at a few different issues from the perspective of unmarried cohabitants that might shape the law for LATs in the future.

  • No financial responsibility.   Legally, cohabiting couples can separate without providing a partner with financial support. Unmarried parents cannot ask for spousal support at relationship breakdown, but child support might be payable. One can expect the courts to look at a long-term LAT relationship similarly.
  • At the death of one partner. Unmarried partners would not benefit under intestacy rules if there were no will. The surviving partner will not inherit anything, except if there was a will that made provision for them. Serious LATs should provide for their partner by creating a will and keeping it updated as financial circumstances change. Currently, it is the only ‘legal’ way to provide for a surviving partner (or children) in a LAT relationship.
  • Property rights.   In the case of a cohabiting couple, they can’t claim ownership of each other’s property if they should break up. However, the non-owner may have a claim if they made financial contributions to the property or if the relevant ‘behaviour’ show there is an implied agreement about the property. This area of the law is very complex, and at the time of writing, there are no legal grounds for LAT partners to claim a partner’s property. Yet, this validity has been tested in unmarried cohabiting couples, and some of them had successfully claimed a share of the property. It is not to say that it absolutely cannot happen in a LAT relationship. Gifts given during the relationship should remain the property of the recipient.


LAT gives people the flexibility and room to decide how they want to adapt to the demands of contemporary life and couple intimacy. For many, ‘living apart together’ allows them to balance personal space, closeness, and external circumstances.

Tentatively, we can conclude that LAT is more often a stage in a relationship and not necessarily an alternative to cohabitation or marriage. It is not to say it is a permanent state, and many LATs will go on to cohabit or marry. 

For others, however, LAT is permanent and can be meaningful and important because it is on their own terms. How this type of relationship will settle in the legal annals of England and Wales remains to be seen.


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