Lawyers press for cohabitation law update after court battle

Topics: Family and children,Courts business

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A woman’s fight to keep the home she shared with her now deceased partner for almost 20 years has highlighted the need to update cohabitation laws, lawyers have said. 

Joy Williams lived with her partner Norman Martin for 18 years, but faced losing her home because his share of the house passed to his estranged wife Maureen Martin after he died of a heart attack.

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Norman and Maureen had separated but never divorced, and Norman had not updated his will. Williams and Norman owned the house as tenants in common.

Williams contended that the court should award her his half of the house to provide her security as she has been without his financial support since his death. The judge ruled in her favour, recognising that she had lived with Norman Martin as ‘husband and wife’ for many years.

But despite the victory, lawyers said the case highlighted the need to bring cohabitation laws into the 21st century.

Paula Myers, head of wills, trust and estates disputes at Irwin Mitchell, said: ‘There is no such thing as a common law husband or wife and couples who live together do not automatically have the same rights as a married couple or those in a civil partnership.

‘Unmarried couples who live together should have cohabitation agreements in place outlining who owns property and how bills are divided. People should also ensure that their wills are up to date and reflect their wishes, particularly if their circumstances or relationships change.’ 

Williams said that while she was delighted at the outcome, it was traumatic that this level of serious relationship was not recognised by law.

She said: ‘I hope my situation raises awareness for others to consider their own financial position in relation to their partner and consider whether they need to protect each other in future.’

Tony Roe (pictured), a solicitor and family law arbitrator at Tony Roe Solicitors, said the situation was clearly in need of reform.

He told the Gazette: 'There is an untold level of ignorance amongst the public that there is such a thing as common law marriage, but there hasn’t been since the 18th century.

'There should be a change in the law to enable individuals to have some sort of rights in these situations.’ 

Readers' comments (22)

  • Should the solicitor who acted in the purchase of this property in the joint names of the deceased and the claimant have raised the issue with them? Perhaps he did, I hope he did, but what if he didn't?

    When I dealt with a claim of this nature the court endorsed an agreement whereby the whole of the estate passed to the widow, and so no IHT, but she then took the amount of the IHT which would otherwise have had to be paid, and gave the balance to the claimant, who was, therefore, no worse off. All she then had to do was to insure the widow's life for seven years and for whatever IHT would have been payable by her estate had she died in the meantime. As things stand there are now a whole load of legal fees plus the IHT. How will the surviving joint owner find the money to pay all that?

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  • Hardly news, really.

    Person wins case in inheritance dispute. Presumably relying on sections 1(1)(e) or 1(1A) of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act. The former of which was enacted in 1975 (40 years ago) and the latter in 1995 (20 years ago).

    And the conclusion reached is that there needs to be a change in the law to enable individuals to have some sort of rights in these situations.

    That would be, perhaps, the sort of rights which the Claimant in this case actually had, and won her case using, and which have been recognised for the last 20 years, then?

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  • Surely, what the case highlights is not the need to change cohabitation law but the need to revise one's will every now and then?

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  • @anon 18 February 2016 12:42 pm
    Those were my thoughts too. This is not a question of cohabitation rights. Quite simply, the Will left the property to somebody else. Correct me if I am wrong, but it surely makes no difference whether or not 2 people are married in circumstances where there is a valid Will leaving the property to another?

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  • But there was a will and it did leave the property to someone else. The important thing is to ensure that it is left to the 'right' person. And also to ensure that the property is vested in the parties with a Declaration of Trust saying what is to happen on death. And possibly to consider mutual wills?

    And all this has to be clearly explained to the clients, possibly with one or both being invited to take independent advice, and don't, DON'T, tell either to ignore any such advice... The list just goes on, and on, and on..

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  • All that a law giving right to cohabitees would do is to move the dispute from the current implied/resultant trusts and/or Inheritance Act issues, to when where how and on what terms the couple started co-habiting, who brought what assets to the relationship etc.
    Unless couples take a responsible approach to their financial affairs, agree matters properly at the outset, and reduce the agreement to writing, than no amount of changes to the law will create complete certainty let alone fairness.
    How would you frame a law to reconcile the competing claims of Ms Williams and Mrs Martin in the above case, without knowing their means and needs at the date of death of Mr Martin?
    if the couple want to have the same rights as if they were married then the answer is for them to marry.
    That would not have resolved Mr Martin's situation, as he remained married to his estranged spouse, but for many others it is the obvious answer.
    I wholly oppose any law of cohabitees rights

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  • As to the question of how you would draft the relevant section, something like the following would probably do:

    "Where it is shown to the Court's satisfaction that the parties had been living for a period of over __ years in a relationship substantially analogous to marriage, the Court may order that the claimant shall have the same rights and responsibilities as the claimant would have had had they been married or to such lesser rights and responsibilities as to the Court seems just"

    Two comments though:

    a. It would have helped Ms Williams;
    b. it wouldn't leave the status of common law partners more certain or reduce litigation

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  • Perhaps it is time for the Lord Chancellor to consider the Law Commission's recommendations concerning the need to change the law regarding the rights and responsibilities of co-habitees:

    http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed2347

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  • Parliament had an opportunity to make some provision for cohabitees on intestacy at the time of the passing of the Inheritance and Powers of Trustees Act in 1914 but despite it being raised as a possibility by the 2011 LC Report which led to IPTA, appeared to have to thought that it was inappropriate to do so.

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  • This case is not particularly relevant to the need to have cohabitee laws, more a PR stunt.

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