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Cohabitation vs Marriage: What are the legal differences if you separate?

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Married couples have very different legal rights and obligations to couples who choose to live together without getting married. Janine Hutson, a solicitor in Harrison Drury’s divorce and family law team, outlines some key differences between marriage and cohabitation.

Your legal rights as a partner in a relationship will depend on whether you are married or live together without being married. Couples who live together without getting married have fewer legal rights than married couples when they are together and subsequently, have fewer legal remedies available to them if they separate.

Managing money and assets

If you live together without marrying, and then separate, you can generally only seek a share of assets that are in joint names.

If you are married and subsequently divorce, you will be able to seek a share of all monies and assets owned either jointly or in your spouse’s sole name.

For married couples, both spouses have the right to live in the matrimonial home until divorce proceedings have been finalised. This right can only be removed by an order of the court. For couples who live together without marrying, their right to remain living in their property will depend on how it is owned, whether it is owned jointly or in the sole name of one of the partners.

The process of separation

An unmarried couple that decides to separate can end their relationship informally without court proceedings.

This is true to an extent for married couples, they can informally decide to separate. But if they want to legally end their marriage, they must go through divorce proceedings which requires the involvement of the family court.

A relationship with children 

Even though a cohabitating couple does not have to go through court proceedings to end their relationship, the court can still make orders concerning their children. The law does not differ between married couples and cohabitants when it comes to making arrangements for children following separation.

With a focus on the children, the courts will review each separation on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration each parent’s role in the children’s lives.

If you have children together as a cohabiting couple and separate, you could seek to make a claim for a property to be provided to accommodate you and the children. This would only usually be a temporary arrangement and would revert back to your former partner when the children are no longer dependent on you.

To seek specialist legal advice from Harrison Drury’s family law team please contact Janine on 01772 258321.


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