The numbers of unmarried cohabiting couples in the UK has risen to approximately 5 million (according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics). But unmarried couples don’t have automatic legal rights to inherit from each other.

The rights of unmarried couples significantly differ to the married ones and there is a myth that if you live together as man and wife there is a ‘Common-law marriage’.

‘Common-law marriage’ – where you live together without making it official – is a widely held misconception that will not protect the deceased’s partner. The only way to ensure your partner doesn’t lose out when you die, if you’re not married or in a civil partnership, is to write a will.

Where there’s no will, there’s no way of ensuring your partner gets anything when you die. No matter how long you’ve been together, lived together or even whether you’ve had children together if you weren’t married or in a civil partnership, your partner has no automatic legal rights to inherit when you pass away.

When someone dies without a will, the rules of intestacy set in and this means the surviving partner can lose their home and source of income and won’t have any legal say over who gets what and when.

Your partner may face a huge struggle to prove they should get property, not to mention the family division that this can cause.

In some cases where there has been no will, bereaved partners have been forced to bring a financial claim against their own children and other members of the family.

What cohabitees should include in wills

What you need to put into your will if you’re living with a partner will depend on your circumstances, particularly if children are involved.

To look after the survivor, it’s important the will includes:

Who inherits the estate – don’t leave this to the law to dictate.
Who will be involved – you must give your partner the right to be involved in your estate if you pass away.
Wishes for property – you can use your will to make clear that you want your partner to continue to live in the property after you die.
Wishes for money – you can set out exactly who your money goes to, ensuring your partner has enough to live on.
Wishes for possessions – you should include instruction on who will get particular possessions, such as a car or piece of jewellery.
Where there are children involved, matters can become far more complicated. It’s vital to include instruction on the age that children can inherit.

Aside from making a will, you can also take steps that can be put in place at the beginning that will make things easier:

  • Obtain specialist advice at the time of purchasing a property. There are different ways that properties can be owned. Take the time to discuss this together and to obtain advice. Make sure when you complete and sign the Transfer Deed (TR1) that the correct box as to ownership has been ticked.
  • Declarations of Trust – a declaration of trust can be put in place by anyone co-owning a property. This document accurately records what share of the property you and the co-owners own and details the contributions which have been made at the time of purchase.
  • Cohabitation Agreements – this document will set out how property, capital and assets are owned and how they should be divided upon separation to ensure that there is an accurate record of your agreement at the time.