Cohabitation agreements

Unmarried couples in England and Wales have few legal rights if they separate. A cohabitation agreement helps people in committed relationships protect their interests if the relationship ends.

Despite popular belief, “common law marriage” does not exist and hasn’t for centuries. Cohabitation agreements are legally binding documents that couples living together (but who are not married or in a civil partnership) can use to make clear how they intend to manage their finances whilst they live together and what will happen if their relationship breaks down. A written agreement can prevent a great deal of unpleasantness, stress and cost by avoiding arguments in the first place. 

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What do you need to know

A cohabitation agreement (also known as a relationship agreement or a living together agreement) records the agreed arrangements for people who live together (it doesn’t always have to be a couple in a relationship!). They are legally binding if they are entered into properly so specialist legal advice is a must. With the number of couples now cohabiting in the UK rising, cohabitation agreements are becoming increasingly popular.  

Cohabitation agreements typically set out how you intend to manage your finances whilst you live together and provide certainty about how you will divide your finances if you were to split-up. A written agreement can prevent a great deal of emotional and financial cost and avoids arguments in the first place. However, cohabitation agreements are very flexible and can cover everything from who pays the rent to who does the household chores!  

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Although each cohabitation agreement is different, there are a few key points you should always think about.  

  • Property owned before moving in together — iIf one of you already owns property, a cohabitation agreement can be used to protect that property and prevent the other from having a claim over it in the future. However, if the non-owner does make a financial contribution to the property, they could have a claim so think about this carefully. 
  • Property bought while living together — if you buy a house together but only one of you is named as the owner, you should address this in your agreement. If you are joint owners, you are both legally entitled to stay in it if you break up. You will need to think about what would happen then and whether you would want to sell the property or for one of you to buy the other out.  
  • Household bills — if you and your partner are not joint owners of your home, or one of you contributes more financially than the other, you need to think through the implications of this.
  • Inheritance and wills — it’s important to remember that if you are not married or in a civil partnership, you will not automatically inherit each other’s estates if one of you dies. If you want to leave anything to your partner, you will need to have a will and keep it up to date. 
  • Independent legal advice — you will both need to have independent legal advice to ensure that your agreement is binding and that there is no doubt as to what you are both agreeing to. By doing this, the court is much more likely to to put it into effect if you were to break up and needed the court’s help to resolve a dispute. You will also need to be upfront and honest about your personal finances.  
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