Analysis from London law firm Shakespeare Martineau has revealed that 4 out of the 5 largest price comparison websites reference a common law spouse – perpetuating the myth that such a relationship status exists and putting people at huge financial risk.
MoneySuperMarket, Go.Compare, Compare the Market and Quote Zone – which have a combined estimated 22 million visits each month – allow users to select that they are in a “common law” relationship, despite the concept having no legal recognition or protection.
Expert family solicitor Kit O Brien has warned that the incorrect language used on price comparison websites adds to the potential pain and heartbreak someone could suffer through believing they were protected by a “mythical relationship status”.
Kit said: “Throughout my career, I have spoken to numerous unmarried people following the breakdown of their cohabitating relationship who incorrectly believed they could make a claim arising out of that relationship.
“However, under current law, it is possible to live with someone for multiple decades, have children with them and then walk away without taking any responsibility for your former partner.
“For example, they may have contributed to mortgage payments on a property they did not legally own believing it guaranteed them an interest. Sometimes, they may have invested capital in a property that was in their partner’s sole name. While we may be able to establish that they have a beneficial interest in the property, it’s a costly process – both emotionally and financially.
“In other cases, we have seen people who believe they are entitled to maintenance for themselves because they are a ‘common law spouse’ and face real financial difficulties when they discover their only support will be for any children from that relationship.
“There is a real risk people will take major financial decisions based on their belief in an entirely mythical status and, in doing so, expose themselves to significant amounts of financial insecurity and even litigation. So long as insurance websites and companies perpetuate the myth, people will keep on believing it.
“Family lawyers can – and do – regularly speak up to try and make the position clear, but people interact with price comparison sites a lot more frequently than they do solicitors so it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince people when they are so regularly told the status exists.”
According to the latest government figures, there are currently 3.6 million unmarried couples living together in the UK – an increase of 23% in the past decade. Further research from Shakespeare Martineau also revealed that almost half of people (47%) who are looking to buy a house incorrectly believe a status of common law spouse exists, with a further 20% of the difference in rights between married and unmarried couples.
Kit added: “Getting married isn’t for everyone and cohabiting can provide a financially practical option for many couples, especially as we contend with the cost-of-living crisis. However, it is vital that legal protection is put in place in case a relationship fails.
“A cohabitation agreement, which sets out what will happen to joint and separate assets in the event of a break-up, should be the top priority for all unmarried couples planning to move in together. It is especially important to have this agreement in place if the house is in one party’s name only or if children are involved, as protecting your wealth will provide security and help safeguard their future.
“Although this may be an uncomfortable thought, it is important to consider all eventualities and arrange legal protection if something was to go wrong. It is a bit like having insurance – you hope you don’t have to use it, but it is there should the worst happen.
“Ideally, the law should reflect modern life and family lawyers have long pressed the government to introduce some level of rights for cohabiting couples. Sadly, there’s no sign of that happening. Until it does, cohabiting couples need to remember there’s no such thing as a common law spouse and protect themselves accordingly.”