What is the legal difference between marriage and cohabitation?

For many couples, the choice whether to get married or cohabit isn’t one taken from a legal viewpoint.  However,  there are some considerations in the difference between the two that people who are cohabiting should know in order to protect themselves if the worst happens.

At the moment, there’s no clear legal status that defines ‘living together’ or ‘cohabiting’.  Some people choose to have a ‘cohabitation agreement’ that outlines the rights and obligations of each towards the other.  But there’s no guarantee that these are legally enforceable in all aspects.  Areas such as agreements around a jointly-owned house are usually legally binding but you need to work with a solicitor to make sure of this.

The term ‘common law spouse’ is often used to describe the partner of a couple living together.  But again, this is a term that doesn’t have a legal definition – it has simply become a terms that has developed over time.

Examples of differences

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the differences is to look at some common scenarios and the situation when you are married versus cohabiting.

Ending the relationship

If you are married, then the only way to end the relationship legally is to get divorced.  This can be a complex process that is time-consuming and stressful but is the only way to then be able to marry someone else.  Cohabitation relationships can be ended at any time by walking away, although the stress is just as severe.

Dividing property

If a marriage ends, spouses must divide their property along specific legal guidelines.  However, with a cohabitation, you can divide it how you want.  This can also lead to problems as there is no set legal system in place and disputes are common.

Supporting your spouse

At the end of a marriage, the higher wage-earning spouse sometimes has an obligation to provide financial support for their former spouse.  However, couples living together don’t have this same obligation unless there is an agreement in place that is legally binding.  This can lead to financial hardship for one spouse.

When someone dies without a Will

When one person dies, the married spouse automatically inherits their estate.  However, when the cohabiting person dies, it will follow the intestacy rules which do not make provision for the partner.  Their partner has no claim on the estate unless named in the Will.

Understanding the differences

When you are cohabiting, it is important to understand these differences and take steps to legally protect both of you in case you separate or one of you passes away.  Then you are both protected and clear on the situation in the eyes of the law.  Whether you are looking to enter into a cohabitation agreement, or need advice when a relationship has broken down, contact us for a free initial consultation on 029 2023 7777 or law@robsols.co.uk  


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