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Unmarried Couples in Northern Ireland: What are my legal rights?

Unmarried couples do not have the same legal obligations to one another as their married counterparts and unfortunately this means a multitude of issues can arise over the ownership of property or financial settlements upon separation. 

In some cases, it may be possible to make a financial claim against an ex, even if you weren’t married.
This will all depend on the circumstances.

Family Law Senior Associate Ciara Barlow specialises in this particular area of law and guides us in terms of dispute resolution, division of assets and child law for unmarried couples.

Ciara gives us her expert advice on asset protection and how an Unmarried Couples Agreement might offer you and your partner peace of mind and greater financial security for your future. Ciara also highlights the security in having a Cohabitation Agreement in place for family, friends or housemates (not romantically involved) living together and sharing the responsibility of the mortgage payments and bills.

How do you split assets when not married? 

Assets held jointly will be divided in accordance with their legal ownership. Unmarried couples however have limited recourse to an ex-partner’s property, financial assets, or belongings, pension or financial support regardless of the duration of the relationship.

If an unmarried couple split, how do they determine payment of bills on their property for example mortgage repayments?

If both Parties are named jointly on the mortgage, then regardless of who remains living in the property both are jointly and independently liable for the mortgage payments. This often leaves one partner in a very vulnerable position where they can’t afford to pay the full mortgage and the other refuses to contribute.

If you have a joint mortgage and the relationship breaks down, it is often the case that one partner will make financial enquiries to secure a mortgage in their sole name. This is not always possible though depending on financial circumstances. 

What happens when there is a property dispute between an unmarried couple?
How is ownership affected? Who keeps the family home?

If the home occupied by you is jointly owned, you have equal rights to remain in the property upon the breakdown of the relationship. 

If you are the sole owner of the property, you have the right to remain in it unless your partner obtains an Order from the Court that he or she has a right of occupation.

When it comes to making a claim on the property, the starting point is to look at the legal ownership of the property. If the property is in joint names then often, but not always, the starting point is that they have an equal share. If the property is in one partner’s name then the starting point is that they are entitled to the whole of it but the other partner may be able to pursue a claim for an interest in certain circumstances; for instance you may be able to claim a financial stake in the property if you can prove that you have contributed to the mortgage, the initial deposit or paid for any significant work on the house eg an extension. 

What is a Beneficial Interest in terms of claims to a property?

In short, a beneficial interest in a property can entitle you to a financial share. It is where your ex-partner owns the legal title of the property for the benefit of both of you. The starting point is to consider whether there was an agreement or a common intention to share ownership of the equity in the property. This is crucial to claim a beneficial interest. A common intention to share ownership, coupled with you having acted to your detriment, such as discharging the mortgage or making any other substantial contribution, may entitle you to claim a beneficial interest in the property.

If my partner and I have been together for years and we haven’t made a Will, when one of us dies -will the other automatically inherit everything?

If the parties own assets as joint tenants then those assets will pass to the survivor.  In the event however the first party dies with either solely held assets or assets held as tenant in common, and without a Will, intestacy rules apply and those assets will pass as part of the deceased’s estate to their next of kin. The surviving partner could be forced to sell the asset to realise the estate’s share.   

Depending on the length of the relationship it may be possible to challenge the intestacy rules to make a claim against your partner’s estate.

Find out more about Wills and Succession Planning

Get in touch with our Wills team | Call 0800 840 9288

If over the years you have contributed to the upkeep of the house, are you entitled to something in return?

Typically, such contributions will not suffice to claim an interest in the property unless they are significant and have added value to the property. General household bills will not be enough. 

How does Child maintenance work for unmarried couples if they part ways?

In the absence of an agreement, the non-resident parent may be subject to a child maintenance assessment by CMD or alternatively a Court Order.

Find out more about Child Law and your rights as a parent or guardian 
Get in touch with our Child Law team | Call 0800 840 1363

How can I best protect my assets or ownership of property, while remaining unmarried? 

It’s a good idea to agree on a cohabitation agreement which sets out the Parties’ intention. It is so important to protect yourself should things not go to plan with the relationship. Essentially a cohabitation agreement sets out the arrangements for finances, property (property owned before moving in together, property bought when living together) and perhaps children while you’re living together and if you split up, become ill or die. Cohabitees don’t automatically have rights like married couples so having a legal document like this can be useful.  

What is an Unmarried Couples Agreement and/or a Cohabitation Agreement?

A Cohabitation Agreement is a legal document between unmarried couples who are living together. It clarifies who owns what, who is responsible for which bill and how jointly owned items should be split if you separate. It sets out arrangements for finances, property and children while you’re living together and if you split up, become ill or die.

Family Law Senior Associate Ciara Barlow can help you prepare a cohabitation agreement and make sure it is legally binding.

Cohabitation Agreements can also be made between people who are not romantically involved – for example, friends or siblings living together. The agreement can help you divide up bills and other responsibilities while you live together.

You can make an agreement at any time.

You may want to consider one if you are in a relationship and living with your partner and then decide to have children or get a mortgage.

For example, an agreement can make sure you have:

  • a share of each others’ assets
  • access to each others’ state pension
  • next of kin rights in a medical emergency

What do we need to prepare before we start to organise our Cohabitation Agreement / Unmarried Couples Agreement?

You and your partner or friend, should look at your assets and discuss how you’d want them to be divided. You’ll also need to gather and bring any relevant paperwork or documents related to;

  • property
  • investments
  • pension
  • savings

At what stage do we make an appointment with a solicitor?

You should preferably see your solicitor before you cohabit or purchase jointly held assets.  If you are already cohabiting you could still consider an agreement particularly as your relationship evolves.

When you contact our Family Law team, they may ask you about:

  •  the value of both of your assets, like savings, investments, pensions
  •  if you rent or own a property, and whose name the property is in
  •  any property improvement work either of you have paid for
  •  both of your earnings
  •  if you or your partner have any children

We may suggest one of you gets advice from a separate solicitor before signing the agreement- this makes sure it protects both of your interests, and reflects what you both want.
Each party will bear their own costs and we will discuss the costs with you.
We’ll tell you how long the whole process should take, this could be a few weeks.

You may also like to talk to us about making a will if you have not already made one.

Can we change or alter our Agreement later on?

Later on, if circumstances change, for example, you have children, buy property together or move to another country, you can contact us and we will advise you of any changes you may need to make to your agreement. It’s important to keep it up to date so it remains legally binding.

Get in Touch

If you would like to chat to Ciara Barlow about your options in relation to an Unmarried Couples Agreement or a Cohabitation Agreement, Ciara and our specialist team of solicitors will guide you.

Call us on 0800 840 9292 or make an enquiry via our Let’s get Started form.

Get in touch

To find out more about how we can help you with your query, please contact us.