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Debunking common law myths

Legal Review with Coffin Mew

Debunking common law myths

Julie-Ann Harris

What do Made in Chelsea sweethearts Binky Falstead and JP, and the lovely Emma Bunton and Jade Jones have in common?

They chose, along with 3.3 million other families in the UK, to live together rather than marry and are often fondly referred to by the media as ‘common law’ partners.

Not a month passes without one or more reference to “the common law husband or wife of…” which, much to the chagrin of many legal professionals, continues to perpetuate the fiction of a legal relationship.

In 2017, The Office for National Statistics reported that the fastest-growing family type is the cohabiting couple, followed by 2.8 million lone-parent families.

While marriage and civil partners top the leaderboard at 12.9 million, there is a clear move away from the one size fits all ‘commitment’ of marriage.

Recent research reveals that more than two thirds of couples who live together believe in the common law myth, whereas in reality there is no legal recognition of a common law relationship, it being fully abolished by the 1753 Marriage Act when only marriages conducted by the Church of England were recognised in England and Wales, with very few exceptions.

Of course, these days a civil marriage need not involve the church, but the fact remains that in the absence of a marriage ceremony of sorts, there is no legal status of a ‘common law’ spouse.

In the absence of government reform and increasing public awareness, how is fact to be extracted from fiction?

Perhaps the lack of legal and financial obligations between cohabiting couples is too stark in contrast to those created by marriage that the gloss of common law provides comfort, although misplaced.

Couples who live together do not have a legal duty to support each other financially, unlike married couples, and neither has the right to claim against income, capital or pensions on separation for personal support.

Support does extend for children and there is limited provision available on death, but there is no ‘divorce process’ so disputes over assets such as house contents, money or investment into your partner’s property are complex.

Calls to modernise the legal position are widespread, yet progress is slow, which leaves those who choose to live together without the protection, support and security that is afforded to married couples.

While many believe that marriage is “just a piece of paper”, the time, stress and cost that unmarried couples face on separation suggests otherwise.

If you have no desire to marry, then avoid uncertainty and invest in your very own “piece of paper” or in other words, have a cohabitation agreement put in place to protect yourself as much as you can while we wait for the cogs of power to turn.

If you would like further guidance or have any questions concerning cohabitation and associated agreements, please contact Julie-Ann Harris, partner, at or telephone 023 8048 3754. Alternatively, you can contact one of Coffin Mew’s family law specialists at

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