What are the Rights of Unmarried Couples?

A recent survey, by the National Centre for Social Research, found that 46% of the public believes there is a “common law marriage”, which gives unmarried couples the same rights as those who are married or in a civil partnership.

However, although cohabiting couples are now the fastest growing type of household in the UK, according to the University of Exeter, they do not share the same legal status as married or civil partners. In this article, we highlight some of the key differences between unmarried couples, and couples who are married or in a civil partnership.

Home Rights

In the event of a separation, both married or civil partners have a right to remain in the matrimonial home. If one spouse is the sole owner of the property, then the other may wish to record their rights with HM Land Registry, which can prevent their partner from selling the property.

However, for unmarried couples, where one partner is the sole owner of the home, the other does not have the same rights to remain in the home. In certain circumstances, this other partner can make a court application to claim rights to the property, such as if it is in the best interests of their children, or if they have made contributions towards the home.

Parental Responsibility

Parental responsibility is the legal right of a parent to make decisions about their child’s life, such as their home, education, and health. A child’s birth mother automatically has parental responsibility, but an unmarried partner of the mother will not have a say in these decisions unless they:

  • Are registered on the child’s birth certificate with the mother’s consent;
  • Enter a parental responsibility agreement;
  • Apply to the court for a parental responsibility order;
  • Apply to the court for a child arrangements order;
  • Are appointed as the child’s guardian on the mother’s death;
  • Adopt the child; or
  • Marry the child’s mother


If an unmarried partner dies without making a will, then the surviving partner will not inherit anything under the intestacy rules, except for any jointly owned property. For this reason, if cohabiting couples wish to provide for their partner, they are strongly advised to make a will.

Surviving married or civil partners will automatically inherit all their deceased partner’s personal property, even if there was no will. They will also inherit all or most of the estate, depending on its value, and whether there are any surviving children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Finally, married or civil couples are exempt from paying inheritance tax, but unmarried couples are not.

If you would like more detailed advice on your rights, to make a will, apply for parental responsibility, or are going through a separation, contact us at Audley Chaucer.

Written by Michael Farr

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