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The myth of ‘common law marriage’

Despite the fact that many people believe in a ‘common law’ marriage, there simply is no such thing.

With around 12.5 million cohabiting couple families* living in the UK, legal issues involving separation (or the death of one partner) have the potential to affect a vast number of the population. Unlike the automatic legal protections afforded by marriage or civil partnership, living together (regardless of duration) does not guarantee any property rights to the affected party, as the recent case of Joy Williams and Norman Martin has illustrated.

Mr Martin, a deceased dental practitioner, had for the last eighteen years been in a relationship with Ms Williams, but had remained married to his estranged wife, Maureen. Despite this, Ms Williams has had to spend a very substantial sum in legal fees in order to bring the claim against Mr Martin’s estate. The central asset in the case was the three-bedroom home, which was purchased by Mr Martin and Ms Williams in 2009 and owned by the couple as tenants in common.

His Honour Judge Gerald sitting at the County Court at Central London ordered that Ms Williams did have an ‘absolute’ interest in the home, and Mrs Martin was subsequently ordered to pay £100,000 of Ms Williams’ legal costs.

Mrs Martin’s daughter has since announced that her mother plans to appeal the judgment.

The case highlights the expensive and seemingly unpredictable nature of cohabitation proceedings that often require a full assessment of minute financial and personal details over the course of a substantial relationship—all of which can be avoided by having a cohabitation agreement and an up-to-date will in place.

Our Family and Private Client teams have substantial expertise in cohabitation and estate planning matters. If you think you could benefit from their advice, just call our legal team on 0161 969 3131.

* ‘Common law marriage and Cohabitation’, House of Commons Briefing Paper, 2016