Joy Williams lived with her partner Norman for 18 years. Norman was separated from his wife but not divorced. He had also not updated his Will.
Joy and Norman owned their house as tenants in common which meant that when he died suddenly of a heart attack, his half of the property, which had been valued at £320,000, passed not to Joy but to his estranged wife Maureen. Had Norman divorced Maureen, obtained a suitable court order and updated his Will he could have ensured that Joy would be financially protected in the event of his death.
Joy could not afford to buy Maureen’s half from her so she argued that the court should award her Norman’s half of the property to provide her with financial security.
The judge ruled in her favour and recognised that she had lived with Norman as “husband and wife” for many years.
Even though this is a victory for Joy she has commented that it was traumatic that this level of serious relationship is not recognised by law. She stated “I hope my situation raises awareness for others to consider their own financial position in relation to their partner and consider whether they need to take advice to protect each other in future.”
Many non-married couples believe that if they are in a committed relationship for many years then the law will recognise them as common law husband and wife. The reality is that this is an urban myth and there is no such thing as a common law marriage. Couples who live together but are not married should seriously consider entering into a cohabitation agreement before moving in together. Any cohabitation agreement should set out who pays for the household bills and how the property should be divided should the relationship break down.
Just as important is ensuring that their Wills are up to date to reflect their current wishes as to what should happen to their property in the event of their deaths.
In addition, co-habiting couples should put some thought into how they own their property. On completion, couples will be given two ownership options, tenants in common or joint tenants. Joy and Norman owned their property as tenants in common but if they had owned as joint tenants, the doctrine of survivorship would have applied and Norman’s share of the property would have automatically passed to Joy regardless of what was contained in Norman’s Will.
As a solicitor who deals with both Family matters and Wills and Probate matters I would urge anyone who is living with their partner to make sure that they are legally protected. If anyone is unsure about where they stand, they should seek the advice of a solicitor who can put their mind at rest.