InsightsInsight - Property and Conveyancing - POSTED: February 15 2016
Living together – the reality behind the myth
The law relating to couples who live together is often not what it’s thought to be, many people wrongly believe they have the same rights as married couples. The idea of a common-law husband or wife is an urban myth.
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There is currently a case being decided in the Central Family Court which highlights the importance of couples who live together seeking proper legal advice about how they share their property and the arrangements they make to pass on their assets after death.
Joy Williams, 69, lived with her partner Norman for 18 years in their home in Dorset which they owned together in equal shares. Norman had separated from his wife Maureen, many years before but remained married to her.
In 2012 Norman died suddenly of a heart attack and Joy fully expected to then receive Norman’s share of the house they shared and owned together. However, because they owned their house as tenants in common it was published to each of them to leave their share in their house to whoever they chose in their Will. Unfortunately, Norman had not updated his Will since he had separated from his wife and his Will, therefore, his estate, and consequently, his share of the house passed to her. A result that neither Joy nor Norman had wanted. Had Joy and Norman held their house as joint tenants, Norman’s share would have passed automatically to Joy regardless of what Norman’s Will provided.
Because the house was owned as tenants in common, even if Norman had never made a Will his half share of the house would still have passed to his wife under the rules of intestacy. Even if Norman had not made a Will and had divorced his wife Joy would still not have received his share of the house as it would have passed to his children if any, and then to his parents and brothers and sisters again under the rules of intestacy.
Cohabitees do not acquire any rights to their partner’s property simply because of the length of time they have lived together. The idea of a common law marriage does not exist in the law and cohabitees do not acquire any special status even where they have children.
The case highlights the need for couples who decide simply to live together and not marry to seek legal advice about how they hold the property they own and about what will happen in the event of their death. This is especially true when they have children.
Joy Williams will now have to pursue potentially lengthy legal proceedings costing thousands simply to secure her home which she and her partner would have always believed would be hers in any event. The whole issue could have been avoided if Norman had reviewed his Will.
Our advice to clients is to take proper legal advice when your circumstances change and review your Will at least every five years.
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