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Cohabiting couples urged to ‘prepare for the worst’

Cohabiting couples are being urged to prepare for the worst by considering what might happen if their relationship ends and they decide to separate.

The warning from the Law Society follows the case of a woman who had to give a half share in her house to the man she once lived with even though they had separated 17 years earlier and he had not paid anything towards the mortgage in all that time.

The reason was that they had bought the house as joint tenants and had neglected to update the ownership arrangement when they separated. It meant the man retained his joint share.

Law Society spokesman Robert Heslett said: "Cases like the one described are happening all too frequently and we urge cohabiting couples to ensure they have protected their assets or they too may face a similar fate.

"It is no surprise that couples do not want to consider the ramifications if they break up but it is essential when committing to set up home together to seek legal advice from a solicitor in order to prepare for any eventuality."

Unfortunately, couples who live together are often confused about their legal rights. Many believe there is such a thing as common law marriage giving them the same legal protection as married couples.

This is not the case. Cohabiting couples have very few automatic rights and this can cause numerous problems.

For example, if your home is in your ex-partner’s name then you will have no automatic right to stay there if you are asked to leave. Nor will you automatically be entitled to a financial share in the house, even if you helped to pay for it over several years.

You may also find yourself in a similar situation to the woman in the case described above in which your partner can claim a share of your home several years after the relationship has ended.

If you are cohabiting you should also remember that your partner won’t have to pay maintenance for you if your relationship ends, even if you gave up your job to look after the children while he or she went out to build a lucrative career. They will, however, have to help support any children you have together.

Many couples protect themselves by drawing up living together agreements which state in advance how their assets should be divided if they eventually separate. This can prevent disputes later if the worst does happen, although many couples find that the process of drawing up an agreement actually strengthens their relationship because both sides feel more secure and settled.

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