In November 2012 the Office for National Statistics released figures showing that 5.9 million people in the UK were cohabiting – twice as many as in 1996. Yet despite the increase in numbers, many people falsely believe that unmarried couples who have lived together for a period of time are considered married by ‘common law’ and that, as a result, their legal rights are the same as married couples. Here Helen Bradin, Partner at local solicitors Bradin Trubshaw & Kirwan LLP, advises on some of the legal misconceptions and pitfalls that can arise regarding property and possessions when a cohabiting relationship breaks down.

Q: I moved into my partner’s house 10 years ago but we’ve never quite got round to tying the knot. We’ve hit a bit of a rough patch and I’m worried what will happen about the house if we split up?

Helen: Firstly, contrary to popular belief, in UK law there is no such thing as common law marriage which means that cohabiting partners do not have the same rights as married couples or civil partners – it does not matter how many years you have lived together. As your partner owns the house and assuming you do not have a cohabitation agreement in place or have not paid money to substantially improve its value, and there is no agreement that you should have an interest, then unfortunately you may not have a right to a share in the house should he ask you to leave.

Q: My boyfriend and I are planning to buy a house together but I’m concerned that I am contributing significantly more towards the deposit than he is. It’s not romantic, but can I protect my investment should we break up?

Helen: It is a good idea to sort out your financial arrangements prior to buying your property. There are two options here. If you become joint tenants you will both own the whole property and inherit the whole property in the event of a death. Also if you split up and sell your house you will however usually get half. But if you are contributing a great deal more towards the deposit then you could become tenants in common with a trust deed which allows you to split your shares up accordingly – for example 70:30. You will not automatically get each other’s share if one of you dies though unless this is expressed in a will. It’s a good idea to get advice from your solicitor before you decide.

Q: My girlfriend and I lived very happily together for five years when tragically she was killed in a road accident. As we were only in our 20s we hadn’t made wills. Now her family are demanding that I give them all her possessions and the small amount of money she’d saved. Can they do this?

Helen: I am sorry to say that without a will you do not automatically inherit your girlfriend’s money or possessions, they go to blood relations even though you lived together for a few years. The same applies if your home was in your partner’s name or you were joint tenants in common, however you can make a claim on the estate in certain circumstances. It is always advisable to make a will to protect your assets however gloomy that may seem.

Q: Having had my fingers burned by a previous relationship I am cautious about setting up home with my new partner. Is there anything I can do to look after my interests?

Helen: Yes, it’s a good idea to draw up a cohabitation agreement which allows you both to set out in advance who owns what – property, assets, house contents, savings, personal belongings etc. – and how they will be divided if you split up. The best way forward is to discuss this with your partner and for one partner to commission a lawyer to draw up an agreement which should be independently checked by the other’s solicitor. It is important that you have separate lawyers to show to a court, if necessary, that no-one was put under pressure to sign the agreement.

For advice on family and other legal matters contact Bradin Trubshaw & Kirwan LLP on 01543 421840 for a consultation or email hcb@btpsolicitors.co.uk