Living and Dying Together? Unmarried Couples and Inheritance

Proposals are afoot to give cohabitees the right to be treated in the same way as a spouse if their partner dies intestate.

For married couples, if your husband/wife dies intestate, you will automatically inherit up to the first £450,000 of the estate and any jointly owned assets and personal possessions, with any remainder being divided between other blood relatives. You are the widow or widower for the purposes of life insurance payout's, pensions and (if you own your house as joint tenants) the marital home. Even estranged spouses can bring financial claims against the estate if they have a financial need to do so.

There is no such thing as a "common law" husband or wife; you are either married or you are not. If your cohabitee dies without making a will his/her estate will pass to children, parents, siblings or other blood relatives - not to you. Cohabitees do not form a class of beneficiary under the intestacy rules.

A case might be made under Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975 for you to receive money from the estate if you had lived with your partner in the 2 year period up to their death but you would probably have to bring a case to court and be in competition with the deceased's family members who have recognised rights under the intestacy provisions. Court cases are lengthy and expensive.

The proposals would give people who had lived with their partner for 5 years or more (or had children together) the same rights upon intestacy as a spouse (see above); if you had lived together for up to 2 years, you would get half of what a spouse would get. The more long-standing a relationship appears to be, the more financial rights go with it.

Cohabitee rights have been hot political topics for many years, seen as a vote winner or loser depending upon your political allegiances. Family lawyers have witnessed cohabitees facing dire financial straits upon relationship breakdown or death of a partner and have often argued that the law as it relates to living together should be codified. That is not to say that unmarried couples should get all of the rights and obligations of marriage - but an element of clarity would certainly not go amiss. In the meantime, if you cohabit, always make a will.