Married Vs. Unmarried – What’s The Difference When Separating?

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Anna Vollans

Founder of Vollans Mediation

It’s important to note that, unlike married couples, cohabiting partners do not have the same automatic legal rights and protections. This can have significant implications in the event of separation, so it’s important to be aware of your legal standing.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), marriage rates in England and Wales have been declining over the years. In 2019, there were 239,020 marriages registered in England and Wales, a decrease from previous years. Cohabitation, or living together without being married, has been on the rise. The ONS reported that in 2019, there were approximately 3.5 million cohabiting couples in the UK, making up around 17% of all families.

There’s no such thing as a common law marriage. It remains a common misconception that if you’ve lived together with your partner for a period of time, that you will have the same rights as a married couple. This is not the case. Cohabiting couples do not have the same financial claims when they separate as married couples do.

There is legislation to protect married couples when they separate and divorce. There are financial claims that they can make in respect of the assets either in joint or sole names, including pensions. Unmarried couples have no automatic claims to assets owned by the other party. Married couples can also apply for maintenance for themselves from the other party, whereas unmarried couples cannot. The only legislation that unmarried couples can use relates to jointly owned property or where there are children of the relationship.

We always recommend that separating couples (whether married or unmarried) should ensure they have up-to-date wills to ensure that their assets are distributed how they wish in the event one of them dies.

Data from the ONS shows that cohabiting couples are the fastest-growing family type in the UK, and many of them have dependent children. Whilst married couples automatically share parental responsibility for their children, unmarried fathers will  only have parental responsibility if they are named on the child’s birth certificate, through a parental responsibility agreement with the mother, or by obtaining a court order.

Both married and unmarried parents have legal responsibilities to financially support their children. The Child Maintenance Service (CMS) provides a framework for calculating child maintenance payments.

We can help separating couples who are trying to reach agreements in mediation understand what the law says about their circumstances so that they can reach an agreement that reflects their legal rights and responsibilities. The things you’ll need to think about will be different depending on whether you have been married or had a civil partnership or not.

Whatever your circumstances, we can help you to draw together all the relevant financial information you will need to make an informed decision. Where needed, you will be encouraged to obtain independent legal advice from a solicitor to fully understand your rights and responsibilities. Please get in touch by emailing or call 0113 213 3662 for more information.

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