The myth of the common law spouse

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The law for cohabitating couples who separate is not as clear cut as for couples who are divorcing. Many still believe in the concept of a ‘common law spouse’ – that if you have lived together for a number of years you automatically become entitled to a share of your partner’s property and vice versa. This is a complete myth!

If you separate from your partner and they own the family home in their sole name, you do not automatically become entitled to a share. You will first need to establish whether you are entitled to a share of the property and if so, how much that share is worth. This is done by looking at the Land Registry title deeds, who has paid the mortgage, what other contributions have been made by you and whether any repairs or refurbishment have been made to the property.

A recent case gives hope to unmarried partners who do not offer much to the property by way of financial contribution. The applicant cohabitant (GY) claimed a beneficial interest in her home, which was held in her deceased partner’s (NY’s) sole name and was worth over £1.2 million. GY and NY lived together from 1975 and had two children, who were adults at the time of the proceedings. The property was purchased in 1982 with a mortgage. GY had no significant income so NY had paid the mortgage and most of the outgoings. However, the judge found that GY had a 25% beneficial interest in the property. Her financial contribution “did not amount to much”, but she had made domestic contributions which, in this case, gave her a right to a share of the property.

Not every case will be the same so it is important that, for any unmarried couple who are planning to separate, independent legal advice is sought from a family law specialist who can advise on what the likely outcome could be for a particular situation.

If you need advice, our friendly and experience solicitors are on hand to help. Call the team on 01473 611211 or email

Amanda Crowe is a divorce solicitor at Barker Gotelee, Solicitors in Ipswich.

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