Cohabitation & Unmarried Couples

Unmarried Couples Solicitors

Understanding your rights and entitlements as an unmarried person can be tricky when a relationship breaks down, particularly if disagreements arise over property, finances, or children.

Contrary to the popular misconception, unmarried couples who live together are not “common-law partners” in any legal sense. Under English law, cohabiting couples have fewer legal options compared to those who are married or in a civil partnership, no matter how long they have lived together.

Unfortunately, relationships can and do break down, and it is important for unmarried couples to plan for every eventuality. As all relationships are unique, our family team will need to speak to you about your personal circumstances before offering advice that meets your needs.

Protecting Your Rights as Unmarried Couples

Child Arrangements and Property Division in Separation

Typically, if you and your partner are not married or in a civil partnership you will not be entitled to financial maintenance or a share of your partner’s property (unless you are the legal joint owner of the property or can show that you contributed toward its purchase or improvement). Any disputes over property ownership will be settled in reference to trust and land law rather than family law.

Where children are concerned, the same laws will generally apply regardless of your marital status, and it may be possible to claim financial support from the other parent.

Cohabitation Agreement/ Declaration of Trust

There are several legal options to protect your rights should the worst happen, including entering into a cohabitation agreement, which formalises your relationship and clarifies each partner’s entitlements. For a cohabitation agreement to be binding, you and your partner must have received independent legal advice. You may also wish to sign a Declaration of Trust specifying how any property will be divided if the relationship breaks down.

A thumbnail with bio photo of John Randle, Head of Family Law practice at McAllister Olivarius, and a badge he receives from being ranked in the 2024 Chambers and Partners.
John Randle, Senior Counsel and Head of Family Practice

Why McAllister Olivarius?

Experienced Team

Our practice is led by John Randle, a specialist in family law with nearly 40 years’ experience. John typically acts for high-net-worth individuals, from prominent businesspeople to household names in the world of sport. His clients have included British Olympians, Premier League footballers, international rugby players and others.

John is recognised by leading directories for his skill in dealing with a full range of divorce matters, including matrimonial finance, the division of business assets, and complex private child law issues such as international surrogacy, international adoption and special guardianship applications.

Over his many years in law, John has represented and advised thousands of clients facing divorce. He has acted in significant settlements, including complex prenuptial arrangements worth tens of millions of pounds.

Unparalleled Experience, Meticulous Approach

We understand the financial and emotional intricacies of the divorce process and will find a way to protect your interests while considering the well-being of you and your children.

Whatever your circumstances, our meticulous approach will help you reach a fair and favourable settlement.


What are the grounds for divorce in England and Wales?

As of April 6, 2022, there has been no need to specify grounds for divorce in the England and Wales beyond the irretrievable breakdown of marriage. The no-fault divorce rule allows married persons or civil partners to apply for a divorce without the need to identify bad behaviour or prove fault on the part of their spouse.

Divorcing couples can file for divorce by citing the irretrievable breakdown of their marriage. This is done by submitting a sole or joint application under which both parties agree to dissolve their relationship. If only one party wishes to file for divorce, they may submit a sole application which can no longer be contested by the other party, save for rare technical legal grounds such as legality or jurisdiction of marriage.

However, a no-fault divorce only ends your marriage. It does not address complexities that are likely to arise from the division of finances, assets and property. What happens to the matrimonial home? If the home is sold, how should the proceeds be divided? When should spousal maintenance be paid, for how long and how much? Should any pensions be shared? If so, how? For divorcing parents, it will be necessary to establish who the children will live with, how much time they will spend with the other parent and when.

These are typically very challenging questions that can have a big impact on both partners’ lives. Contact us if you would like to discuss any of the above issues in confidence with one of our solicitors.

Get in touch

What are the alternatives to divorce?

If you feel your marriage has irretrievably broken down but are not ready to commit to divorce proceedings, a legal separation can offer you the time and space to decide what’s right for you. A legal separation does not end your marriage. You and your spouse will be recognised as legally married, and you will retain some of the legal benefits to which married couples are entitled.

Often, couples use legal separation to determine whether divorce is really the right decision. Legally separating couples will have to deal with the same issues as divorcing couples, from the division of assets and debts to parenting and childcare rights and responsibilities. However, any such agreement that is formalised in a separation agreement can be carried over if you do decide to get divorced.

If you would like to discuss whether legal separation is right for you or have questions about financial or parental issues related to a legal separation, contact us now for a free initial consultation.

Get in touch

What rights do I have as a parent following divorce?

Strictly speaking, there are no “parental rights” under the laws of England and Wales. Rather, there are “parental responsibilities”. Parental responsibility remains in place following divorce, and any person with parental responsibility should be consulted about important decisions affecting their child, even if they are no longer actively involved in that child’s life.

Married parents share equally the parental responsibility for their children. However, only the unmarried mother is granted automatic parental responsibility for her child at the time of birth. The father will not be recognised as having parental responsibility unless he is:

  • Married to the child’s mother at the time of birth (this applies whether or not he is the child’s biological father), or
  • Named on the birth certificate when the child’s birth was registered (if the birth was after 1 December 2003) or named on the birth certificate when child’s the birth was re-registered to include his name (depending on when the child was born and which part of the UK the birth was registered in).

Fathers may also be granted parental responsibility through a court-issued parental responsibility order, through a guardianship order, or by entering into a parental responsibility agreement with the child’s mother.

If you would like to discuss whether legal separation is right for you or have questions about parental issues related to a legal separation, contact us now for a free initial consultation.

Get in touch

Do I need a formal agreement covering child arrangements after divorce?

Both parents will normally continue to share parental responsibility following divorce with the expectation that they will act in the best interests of their children. If the parents cannot agree on what is best for their children, they will be expected to attend mediation as a first step. If this does not resolve the issue, it may be necessary for the parents to apply for a court order setting out the arrangements for their children.

There are three main types of court order that can be granted in relation to child arrangements:

  • Child Arrangements Order. This order specifies with whom the child will normally live, how much time the child will spend with their other parent, and what forms of contact can take place between parent and child (for example, whether regular phone calls are permitted or whether the contact is direct or indirect).
  • Prohibited Steps Order. This is a legal injunction which prevents one parent from making decisions or taking specific actions relating to their child’s upbringing. This order can be used to prevent a parent from removing their child from school, changing their child’s surname without the consent of the other parent, or taking the child out of the country, for example.
  • Specific Issue Order. This enables the court to give direction on a specific question about the child’s upbringing. For example, whether the child should attend a religious school, or other welfare issues concerning the child.

Any court order relating to child arrangements will typically remain in place until the child attains the age of 16 unless one or both parties successfully applies to have the order discharged.

If you would like to discuss whether legal separation is right for you or have questions about parental issues related to a legal separation, contact us now for a free initial consultation.

Get in touch

Should I consider a prenup?

A pre-nuptial agreement is used to show the courts what you intended to happen to your assets in the event of divorce. A prenup is commonly used where one party wishes to protect the assets they are bringing into a marriage. However, prenups can also be useful if one party has substantial debts or is at risk of incurring substantial debts and wishes to protect the other party from liability.

The cost of drafting a prenup varies with the complexity of the parties’ assets and circumstances but is typically in the range of £4,000 to £12,000 (plus VAT and expenses). However, a robust prenup can potentially save hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal expenses and court fees while also protecting the assets of one or both parties.

For more details, read our Insights page “Is a prenup right for me?” or visit our dedicated page on Prenuptial and Postnuptial Agreements.

If you would like to speak with one of our team, contact us now for a free initial consultation.

Get in touch

Meet Our Team

Meet Our Divorce & Family Law Team in Maidenhead