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The Myth of a Common Law Marriage and Alternative Claims For Property

As a family law solicitor, I am often asked about the ‘common law spouse’ and whether or not a couple who have lived together as ‘man and wife’ have the same rights as a married couple.

Relationship Breakdown

The Court of Appeal recently heard an application by art lecturer Rupert Ashmore to appeal a Barnstaple County Court decision made after his ex-wife, Kim Woodward, made a claim in relation his property.

The Case

Rupert Ashmore and Kim Woodward lived together as ‘man and wife’ for 25 years, after first meeting when Ms Woodward was a 19-year-old student, and had a child together in the early 1990s. However, they never married and all the places where they lived and the business they had set up and worked in together were registered in the sole name of Mr Ashmore.

After a hearing at Barnstaple County Court, a district judge ordered that Mr Ashmore’s £700,000 house should be sold and the proceeds divided equally between him and Ms Woodward. Mr Ashmore appealed and eventually settled with Ms Woodward out of court after the parties had given evidence in the Court of Appeal for half a day. The settlement figure payable to Ms Woodward was £275,000, considerably less than the previous award made by the County Court judge.

The case has made the press due to Mr Ashmore apparently claiming that Ms Woodward had been little more than ‘a lodger’ and ‘employee’ with whom he was having a relationship and that she was not entitled to any of his wealth.

Common Law Marriage

Common law marriage is a myth. No matter how long a couple has lived together they do not have any financial claims for themselves against each other based on their relationship upon separation, even if they have children together. Any claims they are able to make will be limited to those under the laws of property and trusts, which are entirely unsuitable for family situations.

Kim Woodward’s claim against Rupert Ashmore will, therefore, have been based on alleging she had an interest in the family home as a result of financial contributions. This could come in the form of deposit payments, paying the mortgage or making improvements to the property.

Alternatively, if Mr Ashmore made a promise that he would ‘look after her’ and Ms Woodward acted in a way that put her at a disadvantage believing this promise, then she would have an interest in the property despite it being legally owned in his sole name.

The Children

Although those in a ‘common law marriage’ cannot make claims against the other on behalf of themselves, separated cohabitees can make claims on behalf of their children.

Up until the child is 18, and in some case beyond, you can make a claim from your former partner on their behalf. This can be for cash sums or regular monthly payments towards costs of bringing the child up and providing them with a home.

The Future

Will the law develop in this area?

In July 2007, a Law Commission report recommended the introduction of a new statutory scheme of financial relief for cohabitees on separation. The recommendation was for the financial relief to be based on the contributions each person made to the relationship.

The Law Commission report was considered by the Government in 2008 and 2011, but they did not reform the law relating to cohabitees at the time. There will be little development in this area of law until there are statutory reforms. So for the time being, separated cohabitees will have to rely on property law based claims.

Jonathan Casey is a family law solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in Manchester.

Slater and Gordon give legal advice to people who have been in long relationships but never married. If you need any legal advice in relation to reaching a financial agreement after a relationship breakdown, we can advise you on the different options that are open to you.

Slater and Gordon have the biggest team of family lawyers in England and Wales. Call our divorce solicitors for a consultation on freephone 0800 916 9055 or contact us online.

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