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Cohabiting couples: your legal rights with property, inheritance and kids

There are around 3.6 million cohabiting couples in the UK, but they don’t have any legal recognition. Unfortunately, this means they miss out on the legal rights that married couples and those in civil partnerships benefit from. 

If you live with your partner and are not married, you could fall victim to your relative lack of legal rights. 

For example, what happens to your property and any assets if your partner passes away unexpectedly? 

While this article looks at your legal rights if you’re cohabiting, it’s always worth getting financial advice, especially if it’s needed for inheritance and tax planning


  • Cohabiting couples have fewer legal rights than married couples and those in civil partnerships.

  • Whether you’re married or not can impact if you’ll automatically inherit assets or property.

  • Getting sound financial advice and having a will in place are sensible steps to protect your partner and loved ones.

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What are your property rights if you’re cohabiting? 

Couples who live together without being married are also known as common-law partners.  

If you rent a property together, both you and your partner are equally responsible for paying the rent and maintaining your home.

If your partner dies, you should be able to stay in the property and notify your landlord as soon as possible. 

Alternatively, if you purchase a property together, if you pass away, your partner will inherit the property and vice versa. 

However, if you both own a share in your home, you receive your own share if the relationship ends.

If your partner dies, you won’t automatically get their share of the property unless it’s in their will. 

What if my partner solely owns our home?

If this is the case, and you’re not married, and your relationship either ends or your partner passes away, you’ll have to move out and won’t inherit the property unless they explicitly state it in their will.  

An exception to this depends on whether you can prove you paid part of the mortgage payments, contributed to the deposit, or made a financial commitment, such as paying for a renovation in exchange for a share in the property.  

If you’re married and beneficial joint tenants, you’ll automatically inherit the property. If you’re tenants in common, you won’t automatically inherit your partner’s share.  

As cohabiting couples have fewer legal rights than married ones, it’s worth agreeing on a cohabitation contract or a living together agreement. 

With this document, you can both outline your rights and obligations and develop a legal agreement concerning how you’ll share your home.  

You should consult a solicitor when drawing up any legal agreements.  

What are your inheritance rights if you’re cohabiting? 

If you’re cohabiting with your partner and they pass away, you won’t inherit anything unless you jointly own any assets or have a will. 

The surviving partner can go to court to claim from the estate if their partner dies without leaving enough for them to live on. 

If you die without a will, you’ll be known as an intestate person, so your estate must be distributed according to certain rules (intestacy). 

However, this will only apply to married or civil partners (at the time of death), as well as close relatives such as children.  

While you can make a legal claim if you were not married or in a civil partnership, to do this, you need to have lived with your partner for at least two years and have financially supported them.  

Having a will resolves this complexity and means you or your partner do not have to go through the courts. It also provides reassurance that your estate is distributed in accordance with your or your partner’s wishes.  

Sadly, if there are no surviving relatives who can inherit your assets, these will pass to the Crown, who then deals with it.  

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What are your parental rights if you’re cohabiting? 

While married parents automatically have legal responsibility for a child, this isn’t the same for cohabiting partners. 

The mother will automatically get parental responsibility, while the unmarried father needs to be on the birth certificate for this. 

Both parents are financially responsible for their child, regardless of whether they’re together, living together or even if the father is not on the birth certificate. 

If the relationship breaks down, arrangements should jointly be made for any children. 

It’s worth stressing that any children, whether their parents are married or not, have a legal right to inherit from them (and their families).  

One of the best ways to protect any children in an unmarried relationship is to have a cohabitation agreement. This will set out the rights and responsibilities of each partner and what happens if you separate. 

Your agreement should include what will happen to any children in the event of a parent passing away. This means they are protected whatever happens and saves either partner from going to court.  

Regardless of whether you’re single, cohabiting or married, it’s wise to appoint a legal guardian in case the worst happens. 

What happens to any bank accounts if you’re cohabiting? 

If you live together and have separate bank accounts, you won’t be able to access any money in your partner’s accounts and vice versa if they die.  

Any money in the bank account will be treated as their estate and won’t be available until everything is settled. 

With a joint bank account, as cohabitees, you both have access to the money. If one partner dies, the other inherits the rest – although some funds will be considered when calculating their estate.  

If you’re married with a joint account, you’ll both have access to the funds, while any debts or overdrafts are your joint responsibility.  

While this may put you off a joint account, if you have separate accounts and your partner dies, you may only be able to access the money if it’s a small balance.  

What are your rights around debt if you’re cohabiting? 

For cohabiting couples, you’re only responsible for debts in your name – unless you have any joint debts such as council tax or act as a guarantor.  

What if I’m single? 

If you’re single, you’re not jointly liable for any debts or liabilities with a partner, although you are financially and legally responsible if you have a child. 

However, even if you don’t have a child or are not planning to start a family, financial planning and having a will is vital. 

Want to gift your assets to someone? Having a will ensures that your wishes are followed and stops your assets from being passed to the Crown.  

Need help planning your financial future? 

Whether you’re looking to get the most out of your money or considering inheritance planning,

Unbiased can help by quickly connecting you to a financial adviser regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. 

An adviser can look at your unique circumstances and help you plan ahead, whatever your relationship status is.  

Get financial advice
We’ll find a professional perfectly matched to your needs. Getting started is easy, fast and free.

About the author
Lisa-Marie Voneshen is a Senior Content Writer at Unbiased. She is an award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of experience writing and editing content across various areas, including personal finance and investing.