Changing attitudes in our society mean that many couples are choosing not to marry or enter into a civil partnership. Marriage and civil partnership provides an array of rights between spouses and civil partners. So what are the rights of cohabiting couples when it comes to death and inheritance?
There is a myth of 'common law marriage'. This is the belief that if you have been living together as a couple for a number of years you are treated as 'common law spouses'. While some jurisdictions do have a concept similar to this, England and Wales is not one of these. If you are not married to your partner you have no automatic right to inherit from their estate if they die without leaving a Will.
Where a person dies without a valid Will the rules of intestacy dictates how their estate will be distributed. In the case of a couple who are married and have no children the surviving spouse will inherit the whole estate. If they also have children then the spouse will receive the first £250,000 and half of what remains,with the children taking the other half. If the couple are unmarried then their surviving partner will receive nothing.
There can be some recourse though. An unmarried partner who finds themselves left out because their partner has died without a Will may be able to apply to the court for provision under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. This Act allows certain catergories of people to apply for provision from an estate when a deceased person's Will or inheritance failed to make 'reasonable provision' for them. A cohabitant is one of these people and can apply as 'a person living as a spouse or a civil partner of the deceased' provided certain conditions are met.
For a cohabitant to qualify they must have been living in the same household as the deceased partner, as though they were their spouse or civil partner, for the 2 years immediatly before their death. This period of time must also be unbroken apart from reasonable exceptions such as time in hospital.
If you are cohabiting with your partner and wish to make sure that they inherit from your estate its very important to have a Will professionally drawn up.