Unmarried couples – why you should have a will

Unmarried partners have no right to inherit from each other unless a valid will is in place, whether they have been in a long-term relationship, whether they share a property, or whether they have children. There is a widespread belief that co-habiting couples are in a “common law marriage” and that they have the same legal rights as married couples. However, such “common law” marriages have no status in law.

And if the worst happens and your unmarried partner dies without having made a will, the intestacy rules set out who will benefit from their estate. These intestacy rules make no provision for unmarried partners and the estate would pass instead to blood relatives.

Here are two real-life examples:

John and Wendy have been in a relationship for twenty years but they never married. They have two children together, Mark who is 13 and Janet who is 14. John also has a child from a previous relationship, Jason, who has just turned 18. They purchased a home together 15 years ago and they own it together, in equal shares, as Tenants in Common.

Unfortunately, John is killed in an accident and he hasn’t made a will. This means that all John’s assets (his property, and personal possessions like his car and money) now passes to his three children. Nothing passes to Wendy. John and Wendy’s children are minors (under the age of 18) so their inheritance must be held in a trust until they reach the age of 18. Wendy thinks this will enable her to stay in the property for the immediate future but she knows that eventually her children will want their inheritance. Wendy will either have to buy them out, if they agree to this, or sell the property. However, John’s son Jason is 18 and he wants his inheritance now. He is entitled to a third of everything John owned.

As of January 2018, the average value of a property in St Albans is £600,000. If this is the value of Johns and Wendy’s house at the time of his death, half the value of the house (£300,000) is now owned by the three children. This means that to buy Jason out Wendy needs to raise £100,000. Wendy may need to take out a bridging loan for £100,000 to pay Jason for his share of the house. Is this feasible when she is dealing with a bereavement and the loss of her partner’s regular income?

All this could have been prevented by the creation of a Will. The terms of John’s will could have provided for Jason but not at the expense of Wendy, by creating a life interest will.

This is just one example of how an awful situation can arise on the death of one half of a cohabiting couple. The example above involves children but even when there are no children involved the rules of intestacy apply, and all that a deceased owns must go to a blood relative whether that be parents, siblings or a more distant relative.

Maria and Alan have lived together for 15 years. Alan moved in with Maria and they never added his name to the property deeds. Maria dies. Maria had no children, she was an only child and her parents are dead. Her closest living relative is her Aunt who inherits everything.

Alan may be able to bring a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family & Dependants) Act 1975. However, this depends on whether he meets the criteria set out in the legislation and is aware of the time limit for bringing such a claim. Alan would be faced with the stress, delay and cost involved in bringing legal proceedings at a time when he has just been bereaved.

Life has a habit of being interrupted by trials and tribulations. To minimise the stresses and strains of an unexpected bereavement cohabiting couples should take steps to protect themselves, each other and any children by drawing up wills to provide for their loved ones.

Here at Bretherton Law our solicitors have been helping families cope with changes in their circumstances for over 50 years. To make an appointment to talk to a solicitor who can advise you based on your specific circumstances, please call or book online. Please note we offer a free 20 minute consultation on Wednesday afternoons.

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