Common Law marriage – a legal myth

‘Common Law’ marriage – a legal myth

Couples may be in for a nasty shock if they ever rely on their ‘common law’ marriage to reinforce their rights – because legally there is no such thing, the Law Society of England and Wales warned today.

“‘Common law’ marriage is one of our most pervasive legal myths,” said Law Society president Christina Blacklaws. “The term originates from when it was less socially acceptable for couples to live together and have children outside wedlock.

“‘Common law’ marriage is not legally recognised but couples across the UK mistakenly believe that long-term cohabitation leads to legal rights.”

46% of people in England and Wales believe in ‘common law’ marriage, according to a recent survey on British attitudes towards common law marriage commissioned by the University of Exeter and carried out by the National Centre for Social Research.*

These statistics have remained virtually unchanged for the past fourteen years with the belief in ‘common law’ marriage particularly strong amongst households with children (55%) and those aged 25 to 64 (52%).*

“Couples in a ‘common law’ marriage often find the division of finances, debt and property can become complicated if they choose to separate or if one partner dies,” said Christina Blacklaws.

“If one partner dies without naming the other in their will, their estate will pass to their next of kin, usually a close family member, and their partner can be left without a legal claim to their partner’s estate and their shared home.

“Separation becomes even more complicated when children are involved and with more and more couples opting for cohabitation, it is vitally important to dispel the ‘common law’ myth.

“There are many options for cohabiting couples including cohabitation agreements, shared property ownership and updating their will to name their partner as a beneficiary.

Long-term cohabiting couples and those considering moving in together should give their partner the gift of security and seek legal advice to ensure they are protected.

*The first findings from the British Social Attitudes Survey – carried out by the National Centre for Social Research – reveal that 46% of people in England and Wales, including 55% of households with children and 52% of those aged 25 – 64, believe in common law marriage. The question regarding ‘common law’ marriage was commissioned by the University of Exeter and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

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