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27 Living Together and Your Rights if You Separate

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1 Introduction

2. How is living together different from being married?

3. Setting up home

If you sort out your legal position properly when you start living together, it saves a great deal of difficulty and legal costs if you do eventually split up.

It helps to be clear with each other about what you are agreeing to at the start, and what you both think is fair. It can be difficult to talk about this because it may feel as though you don’t trust each other. But if you don’t discuss it, things are much more likely to go wrong later.

The home you share

There are four main ways in which people arrange to live together:

  • buying somewhere together;
  • renting somewhere together;
  • moving into a property that one of you owns; or
  • moving into a property that one of you rents.

In each situation the law is different, as described in the rest of this section.

Buying somewhere together
You need to choose whether you are going to hold the property as a ‘joint tenancy’ or a ‘tenancy in common’. These are technical legal terms, but it is important to understand the difference between them. The word ‘tenancy’ here does not mean that you are renting the property: it is the legal term for ‘holding’ land and property.

Joint tenancy means you each hold an equal half share in the home but, as long as the joint tenancy exists, neither of you can take the other person’s share. If one of you dies, the other person automatically inherits the whole of the property. You cannot leave your share to someone else in your will and you cannot change the shares you each hold unless you both agree.

Tenancy in common means you hold the property in shares and you can state how much you each hold when you buy the property. For example, one of you could have 60 per cent and the other 40 per cent. If you don’t state this, the law normally says the shares are equal. The shares are separate, so when you die your share is passed on according to what your will states. If you die without a will, it passes to your next of kin. If you don’t make a will leaving your share to your partner, he or she could end up holding the home in common with your nearest relative or relatives, who may try to sell the property.

If you are each contributing equally and feel sure that you want your partner to have the whole of the home if you die, then a joint tenancy may be right for you.

If you are not contributing equally and want to make sure your share is kept safe for you and the people you choose as your successors, then a tenancy in common is probably better. If one of you is putting in a lump sum and the other is paying a mortgage, you need to think about how you divide the ownership fairly.

The solicitor acting for you when you buy the home should be able to give you legal advice about how you both stand. You may each need to consult separate solicitors to make sure your rights are properly taken care of. Don’t be persuaded to go for a joint tenancy just because it is the simplest option.

However you hold the property, you need to ensure that the paperwork sets out clearly how you hold it and your wishes for the future.

Renting somewhere together
Renting a property together is easier in legal terms than buying one. A tenancy agreement that names you both treats you equally. But this does not mean in law that each of you has to pay only half the rent – if one of you does not pay their share, the other person is legally responsible for all the rent. This is called being ‘jointly and severally liable’. It applies to most types of debt that you take on as a couple in your joint names, as well as to the rent.

Moving into a property owned by your partner
If you move into your partner’s home, this does not give you any rights in the home. So if the home has to be sold, you have no right to stop this happening or to stay living there.

Your partner can give you rights in the home if you both agree to share the ownership. If you contribute to the home by helping to pay for it or doing work on it, then the situation is more complicated. Your rights depend on what you have agreed together. Sometimes it is hard to work out what exactly you have both agreed to verbally. You may have different views about what was agreed, or find it hard to remember what you both said.

If you want to avoid a legal dispute, which is likely to be long and costly, you should try to make any agreement between you clear – ideally, write it down.

Moving into a property that one of you rents
You will need to check the tenancy agreement to make sure you are allowed to have someone else living with you in the house or flat. You may need to get the landlord’s consent (agreement) first. If you rent from the local council you probably don’t need its consent for your partner to move in, but it would be a good idea to tell the council’s housing office and housing benefit department.

The landlord’s consent will give your partner rights in the home only if their name is added to the tenancy agreement or the rent book. If the landlord allows you to add their name, you then become joint tenants of the home, and are ‘jointly and severally liable’ for the rent.

You have a legal right to stay in the home only if you are added to the tenancy agreement. Otherwise the landlord or (if your relationship ends) your partner could make you leave. Your only option in this situation would be to apply to court to establish a ‘right of occupation’.

Buying and paying for other things together
The law says that if you take on a debt jointly, then you will be ‘jointly and severally liable’ for it. This means that if one of you does not pay his or her share, the other can be made to pay the whole lot. This can cause problems if you split up and one of you is left facing all the debts. Similar rules apply to utility bills, such as gas and electricity bills.

Insurance companies generally treat married and unmarried couples differently for things like car and household insurance. Make sure any policy taken out by one of you covers the other, if this is what you need it to do. You must never say or suggest to an insurance company that you are married to your partner when you are not. If you do, and the company finds out, it may refuse to pay any claim you make.

4. Making a ´living-together agreement´

5. When you are living together

6. If you or your partner dies

7. State benefits for people living together

8. Tax matters

9. Pensions

10. If you split up

11. Arrangements if you have children

12. Sorting out the home

13. Sorting out other items you own

14. Dealing with emergencies

15. Terms used in matters to do with living together

16. Further help

17. About this leaflet

The leaflets in this series give you an outline of your legal rights. They are not a complete guide to the law and are not intended to be a guide to how the law will apply to you or to any specific situation. The leaflets are regularly updated but the law may have changed since this was printed, so information in it may be incorrect or out of date.

If you have a problem, you will need to get more information or personal advice to work out the best way to solve it. See 'Further help' for sources of information and advice.

This leaflet is published by the Gurkha Free Legal Advice (LSC). It was written in association with Imogen Clout, a solicitor and mediator specialising in family law.

Leaflet version: January 2009

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