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Legal rights for unmarried couples

Legal rights for unmarried couples

Unmarried couples do not have the same legal rights as married couple, even if they live together or own property together. There is no legal definition or living together, and although you may hear the term common-law spouse/husband/wife, these relationships have no legal recognition. So what are the legal rights for unmarried couples?


Only parents with Parental Responsibility are legally entitled to make decisions regarding the child's living arrangements, health care, education, religion, money and property.

With married couples, both parents have Parental Responsibility. However, with unmarried couple, only the birth mother has Parental Responsibility, unless the child was born after 2002 and the father is registered on the birth certificate; or the child has been legally adopted by the partner.

If you are an unmarried father or unmarried mother (same sex relationships) you may be able to gain Parental Responsibility by:

  • Registering the birth of your child with the mother
  • Making a legally binding Parental Responsibility agreement with the mother and registering it at court
  • Obtaining a Parental Responsibility order
  • Marrying the mother

If an unmarried couple separate they can make an informal arrangement for child contact, but those with Parental Responsibility can refuse contact with those without Parental Responsibility. You can apply to the court to get a child arrangement order. The court will decide on child contact but usually allows contact with both parents, unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Both birth parents are financially responsible for their children, even if the father is not living with the mother or on the birth certificate. In same-sex relationships both parents are financially responsible if they are the child's legal parents. All parties can be contacted by the Child Maintenance Service for maintenance.

Finances, Property & Debts


If you and your unmarried partner have separate bank accounts, neither of you can have legal access to money held in the other's account. If your partner dies, the balance in the account will be the property of your partner's estate and cannot be used until the estate is settled.

Unmarried couples with joint accounts have legal access to the account, regardless of whether only one of you pays into it. If separate, the money will belong to both of you. If you separate from your partner, you should consider closing an account in joint names to avoid your partner accessing the funds or running up debts which will be your responsibility.

If your partner dies, you become entitled to the balance in the account and can continue to have unlimited access to the account. However, a proportion of the balance will be taken into account when calculating the value of the estate of the person who has died.


If you and your partner own property to together it may not be shared 50/50 if you separate, nor will it automatically pass on to you if your partners dies and doesn't have a will.

Unmarried couples can get a cohabitation agreement to agree how finances and property will be shared if the relationship breaks down or either partner dies.


Unmarried couples are only liable for debts that are in your name and not for any your partner's name. You may be responsible for debts in joint names. For example, if you owe council tax, you and your partner will both be responsible for the debt, even if only one of your contributes at the moment. If you are a guarantor for a debt in your partner's name you will be held responsible for paying it if they don't.

Death and Inheritance

With unmarried couples, if one partner dies without leaving a will, the surviving partner will not automatically inherit anything. If the surviving partner is not left with enough to live on, they may go to court to claim from the estate. Unmarried couples are not exempt from paying inheritance tax on anything they inherit from their partner, unlike married couples. You must make a will if you wish to make sure your unmarried partner inherits your estate.

If have any questions about legal rights of unmarried couples, want to obtain a cohabitation agreement or draft a will, please contact us in London (West Drayton) on 01895 449288 or in Hertfordshire (St Albans) on 01727 840900 or by email via our contact page.

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