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Does common law marriage exist in the UK? What you need to know

Common law marriage is a concept that refers to a marriage-like relationship between two people who live together for a certain period of time but without actually getting married or registering their partnership formally. This type of arrangement is recognised in some countries but not in the UK.

In this article, we will explore what this means for couples who choose to live together without getting married.

What is common law marriage?

The exact definition of common law marriage can vary from country to country, but in general, it refers to a relationship in which the couple has not formalised their union through marriage or civil partnership.

In some countries, common law marriage is recognised as a legal status that provides certain rights and protections to the couple. For example, in the United States, common-law marriage is recognised in some states, and couples who meet certain criteria can enjoy many of the same legal benefits as married couples.

Is common law marriage recognised in the UK?

In UK law however, even if a couple has lived together for many years, they do not have the same legal rights and protections as a married couple. This means, when it comes to dividing finances, parental rights and even inheritance rights, the law in the UK largely fails to protect unmarried couples when they split or when a partner passes away.


Since 2006, laws in Scotland have differed slightly from the rest of the UK. Points that differ in Scotland include:

  • Ownership of household goods bought when the couple lived together will be ruled jointly owned, and their share split equally.
  • Financial provisions for decisions made by the couple during the relationship, such as one partner taking time away from their career for childcare.
  • Protections for surviving partners regarding estates, allowing a cohabiting partner protection if there is a death without a will.

It is always best to speak with your solicitor to understand fully where you stand with regards to the laws where you live.

What are the implications of this for unmarried couples?

There are significant implications for couples that are not married but who live together. Some of the key areas where unmarried couples are impacted include:

  • Inheritance rights
  • Pension rights
  • Property rights
  • Parental rights
  • Tax breaks and benefits

How can cohabiting couples protect themselves?

Couples who choose to live together without getting married do not have the same legal rights and protections as married or civil-partnered couples. However, there are steps that couples can take to protect themselves and their assets. By taking these steps, couples can ensure that they are prepared for any eventuality and that their rights and interests are protected. Some of these steps include:

Cohabitation agreement

A cohabitation agreement can be drawn up to establish the couple’s rights and responsibilities towards each other in the event of separation. It covers finances, property and what will happen to your children if you were to split up or if either partner was to become ill or pass away.

Cohabitation agreements are popular with unmarried couples that live together, as they cover all aspects of joint life and the complexities a split can have. A cohabitation agreement offers protection for both parties and their assets, and can offer protections similar to marriage, such as providing equal shares of assets or access to pensions.

Make a Will

If you are not married or if you are in a civil partnership, and you survive your partner, you may not automatically inherit their assets if they die without leaving a Will. If you are an unmarried cohabiting couple, you should each make a Will to ensure that your assets are distributed according to your wishes in the event that either of you should pass away.

​Having a Will offers both of you the chance to address what should happen should either of you pass away. It provides protection for unmarried couples, and it can also benefit your family too.

If you would like any more information relating to this article then please feel free to contact the author: Telephone – 020 8221 8070, email here, or visit the author’s profile here.

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.

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