What is common law marriage?

What is common law marriage?

Common law marriage is the idea that cohabiting couples have the same legal rights as couples who are married or in a civil partnership.

Contrary to popular belief, however, common law marriage doesn’t exist in the UK; although in Scotland, cohabiting couples do have a few basic rights if their relationship comes to an end. Many cohabiting couples wrongly assume that if they have lived together for a number of years, they will be viewed – in the eyes of the law – as the same as couples that are married or in a civil partnership. This means that many couples presume they’re automatically entitled to part of a property when their relationship ends, or that they will receive inheritance if the worst were to happen to their partner.

This is simply not the case, regardless of how long a couple have been living together. Unlike married couples, cohabitees are under no legal requirement to maintain each other financially – unless this has been outlined in a specific agreement. However, if children are involved, both parties may have responsibilities and rights; which will be focused on benefitting and protecting the child, rather than the cohabitees themselves.

Can I protect myself financially as a cohabitee?

Times have changed – while married couples still represent the biggest family group in the UK, the number of cohabiting couples has more than doubled since 19961. According to a recent survey we carried out around cohabitees and their finances, the majority (56%) of unmarried couples said they didn’t feel marriage was necessary; yet at the same time, they also tended to feel less financially secure compared to those who were married. Over half (51%) of unmarried couples believed that the law favours married couples.

However, even as an unmarried couple there are ways of protecting the financial interests of both partners:

Cohabitation agreement

A cohabitation agreement is a legal document that outlines what each cohabitee is entitled to in the event of a break-up, from property to money. If you are legally savvy, you can download a template online and fill this out yourself. However, this can be complicated, and it may be worth getting legal advice before drawing one up.


If you aren’t married, and the worst were to happen, your partner will not automatically inherit your estate – such as property or money. Worryingly, our survey revealed that three quarters (74%) of cohabitees in the UK don’t have a will, meaning that their assets wouldn’t be passed on to their partner. Writing up a will is a good way to ensure that your partner inherits your share of any assets, should you want this to happen.

How to discuss finances with your partner

We chat to money-saving power couple Elisha and Dylan to find out how they approach managing their finances.

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Perceptions of marriage over time

We take a look back at the history of marriage, from the first recorded weddings over 4,000 years ago until now.

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Additional Sources

[1]Aviva Family Finance Report Winter 2016/17

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