No Such Thing As Common Law Marriage?

by Slater & Gordon on June 24, 2013

Couples who live together and avoid the hen/stag do, white dress, wedding cake and all the other trimmings associated with getting married, are calling for the law to be clearer.  Many cohabiting couples wrongly believe there is a set amount of time they can live together for before their relationship turns into a common-law marriage.  English Law does not recognise a common-law marriage (and hasn’t done so for over 250 years).

Once a cohabiting relationship falls apart, the consequences of not being married can come as a shock – there is no automatic right to make a claim on the property, pensions, savings and income, as there is upon Divorce.

The case of Curran v Collins demonstrates this and earlier this year, this case was before the Court of Appeal.  Mr and Mrs Curran lived together for 30 years in a property held in Mr Curran’s sole name.  If she had been married, Ms Curran would have had an automatic right to make a claim against the property together with the kennel and cattery business they ran from there.  However, the Judge in the County Court rejected Ms Curran’s claim and she was left with nothing.  The Court of Appeal have given Ms Curran leave to appeal the decision to see whether she can establish there was an agreement with Mr Collins that she would have a share of the assets if their relationship was to break down.  Interestingly, both Courts commented that they have to apply the Law as it is and although they had sympathy with Ms Curran’s situation, the Law is the Law.

With more and more couples choosing to cohabit rather than marry, in my view education is the key and people need to consider the consequences of their relationship break down before they start on the journey of cohabitation.  What they are or what they are not entitled to may then not come as such a shock!

Indeed the amount of cohabiting couples may decrease with David Cameron’s proposed review of civil partnerships and amendment to government plans on gay marriage.  This would allow heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships when currently only same sex couples have the right to become civil partners.  This would enable heterosexual couples to enter into a legal partnership without having to tie the knot and get married.  This is already happening in Europe in both the Netherlands and in France where the majority of those who have civil partnerships are heterosexual couples.

For many, entering into a civil partnership provides a legal tie without the unnecessary formalities of marriage, baggage of a centuries-old tradition and with all the gender and cultural stereotypes which come with marriage.  Indeed, the process of Dissolution upon the breakdown of a civil partnership is almost identical to the process of Divorce upon the breakdown of a marriage and both acquire exactly the same financial claims.  Civil partnerships for heterosexual couples?  Watch this space!

Slater & Gordon

Slater & Gordon

Georgina Chase is a family solicitor at solicitors Slater & Gordon
Slater & Gordon

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