Dec 12

How to handle an unmarried separation

As the marriage rate drops in the UK, even more people are choosing to remain in long-term relationships, living with their partners and having children. However, the legal situation for a married couple is completely different to that of an unmarried one, no matter how long they have been together.

There are a lot of factors to consider: Money, pensions, housing and most importantly children. Whether you’ve split from your partner, are considering breaking up, or are in a perfectly happy relationship it makes sense to know the legal rights you both have in case of a separation, so you can plan your future with confidence.

There is a common misconception that after a certain amount of years a couple become a ‘common-law’ wife or husband. It’s easy to see why people would think this, if a couple have been acting as if they are married for years, it would be expected that the process would be similar. However, it doesn’t matter how many years you have lived together, or even if you’ve had children – if you have not been legally married, then neither partner is entitled to the assets or income belonging to the other if you separate.Separation

Marriage rates in the UK have been dropping for years, and at the moment they are at an all time low. Latest statistics show an average of 20 per 1,000 people getting married each year. More and more couples are choosing not to make the jump to marriage, a fact that is not surprising considering the potential costs of it. Because of this there have been many calls from family lawyers and other groups that the legal benefits of marriage should be extended to cohabiting couples. However as of yet this has not happened.

The costs of leaving a long-term relationship could be even more expensive and emotionally trying if  both parties start to discover the actual legal rights of their situation are not what they expected – at  time when they are at their most vulnerable.

Factors of Separation

If you and a long term partner are separating, it’s important to have an agreement of separation. This could simply be an understating with no official documentation, but it can be advisable to get a solicitors advice and help in drawing up a document, as it could have a huge impact on your future financial situation. Furthermore, if the worst happens and the separation leads to dispute, a document of agreement its extremely helpful, especially if the the dispute goes as far as a court.

If the situation with your partner has already become difficult and you’re worried that you will not be able to come to an agreement together, you could consider enlisting the aid of a professional family mediator. Whilst they have no legal power, they ay be able to help you and your partner come to an agreement fairly, and can advise solicitors on the steps to make. They are also the first people you would need to contact before taking any disagreement to court.

Maintenance Neither partner has the right to maintenance if you have just been co-habiting, regardless of the length of your relationship.

Assets separationYou both get to take from the relationship any property that you can prove is yours, including things like heirlooms and vehicles. You may need to show receipts if it all goes to court, so make sure you keep proof of purchase of anything you buy.

Bank Accounts If you have separate accounts and are not married (or in a civil partnership) then neither of you have access to the money in the other’s account. If you have a joint account, you both have the right to access the money while it is in both your names. To close a joint account, a bank needs the consent of both parties.

However, if you are the only one putting money into the account, the technical legal position is that the money (and any purchases) belong to you – though you’d likely need to prove this in court through a financial audit trail of wage slips for example.


If you have bought a property together as Joint Tenants or Tenants-in-Common it can be sold and the proceeds split according to the contract. If you both own the property and one of you wants to sell and the other does not, you can apply to the court to let them decide. However, if the property is in the name of just one person, the other partner will not have a right to any of it.separation

There is an exception: if you can show that you have contributed directly to buying the property or improving it in some substantial way. This is known as a ‘beneficial interest’. You do need to show proof of this, though, such as bank statements that show how much of the mortgage you have paid or receipts for redecoration and furniture. If you can prove that there was always an intention to entitle you to a share of the property this may hold some weight for a court; however, proving this can be a lengthy, hard and frustrating process – with no guarantee of success. The best thing to do if caught in this difficult situation it to seek the advice of your solicitor.

Another exception can be in the situation that you and your partner have had children, which is covered in the next section.

NB: Scottish law is slightly different, and does provide some rights to protect cohabitants. Individuals in Scotland still do not have the same rights as married couples, however. A guide to family living and cohabitation in Scotland can be found here.


Even if you don’t have any share in your partner’s property, you may be able to claim a share in your partner’s property on your children’s behalf under the Children’s Act. This is dependent on your circumstances – your solicitor will be able to advise you on this.separation

If you have had children together, then the courts may allow the partner caring for the children to live in the home you used to share while the children are growing up. But this doesn’t always happen and they may have to find somewhere else. You can apply for maintenance for your children through the CSA.

There a huge amount of varying situations when children are involved in a separation. The best thing is to seek legal advice, and always keep in mind their well-being in the ongoing process.


You have no right to any of your ex-partner’s pensions or investments, however long you’ve been together (or if one of you dies).


Neither partner can be held liable for the other’s debts, unless it’s a loan which is in your joint names. To legally be in your joint names, you will have had to sign the debt agreement as required under the Consumer Credit Act.

The only exception is credit cards – if the credit card is in your name. Should this be the case, you are liable for debts on the card, even if your partner is down as the ‘named user’.

What to do

The breakdown of a relationship can be incredibly painful for all parties, including children. The best thing to do is to seek out further legal advice on anything that worries you, and above all to try and keep the separation as civil as possible. A messy breakup of a long-term relationship can be just as a divorce, and can cost you a lot of money to say nothing of the stress and unhappiness of the process, which will all stop you from being able to move forward and get on with your life.


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