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Family Law - The Differences Between Married and Cohabiting Couples

Cohabiting couples are unmarried couples who live together. There are now more cohabiting couples than ever, with over two million in the UK. The family environment in many of these cases is very similar to married couples, but the legal rules applying to them are very different. There are many differences in Family Law between married and unmarried couples who live together.

Contradictory to common belief there is no such thing as a common law husband or wife. Many believe that after a couple have lived together for a certain period they are for all intents and purposes a married couple, but this is not the case. They do not benefit from any matrimonial legislation; in fact the same rules apply as anyone else who live together, such as two friends living as flat mates. Whereas a married couple are treated by the law as a family, cohabiting couples are not. This means that if there is a break up of the relationship one can't claim maintenance from the other. If one half of married couple leaves work to look after children the couple may have, and there is a divorce, the working parent will usually have to compensate the other party. This is not the case with cohabiting couples.

If the couple share a home and only one of their names is on the mortgage, then (s)he is the legal owner of the home. This means that if that person dies, the other party does not inherit the home unless stated in a will. If the couple separate the person whose name is on the mortgage will own one hundred per cent of the property and can sell it as they please. This will be automatically the case even if the other person has been contributing towards the mortgage or other parts of the up keep of the household, such as bills.

If a couple have separate bank accounts then neither person has any rights to the others account. This remains the case if the couple separate. Whereas in a divorce the finances will be split according to a magistrates decision, with the separation of an unmarried couple each person will keep his/her assets. If they have a joint account and can't agree on who is entitled to what, then a court will decide. With a divorce there is no real difference in whether the couple have separate accounts or a joint one. This is not the case with a cohabiting couple.

Something that is surprising to many is that Family Law differs with married and unmarried couples when it comes to Father's after a relationship break up. It is a lot easy for a Father who was married to his children's Mother to get rights to see his children. Up until December 2001 a Father who was not married to his children's Mother had no rights to see his children at all. This meant that the Mother could stop him seeing his children without any reason. This has changed for children born after December 2001, but it is still easier for Father's who are, or have been, married to the child's Mother.

Unmarried couples who live together can enter into a cohabiting agreement. This records assets that belong to each person, and which they share, and therefore how things will be split in the unfortunate circumstance of a split. It also sets out who will contribute towards certain things such as mortgage or rent payments, or children. Anything can be recorded in this agreement, with the most common being homes, finances and children.

The common belief that Family Law is the same, or very similar, with married couples and cohabiting couples is incorrect. There are many differences between the two, something that becomes particularly important in the eventuality of a separation.

Andrew Marshall ©

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