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.

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.’