Cohabitation Vs Marriage: Legal Differences In The UK

by Tanya March 21, 2023

Despite cohabitation being the fastest-growing family unit in the UK, couples who live together are not granted the same statutory rights as their married counterparts.

Living together without being married or being in a civil partnership means you do not have many rights around finances, property, and children.

Whether you’re considering marriage or civil partnership – or you’re curious as to how the law could benefit you – it’s worth learning more about the legal differences between getting married and living together.

Cohabitation in the UK: facts and figures

Although there is no legal definition of living together, it is commonly referred to as ‘cohabitation’ or ‘common-law partners’.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of people living as a couple but not in a civil partnership or marriage has increased to 24.3% in those aged under 85 years.

With a quarter of couples now living together before or instead of giving a formal status to their relationship, it’s clear that traditional unions are becoming less prevalent in the UK.

Certain aspects of your living status could be formalised by drawing up a cohabitation contract, which is a type of legal agreement that details the obligations and rights of each partner.

However, if you make this type of agreement, you’ll also need to legally decide how you share your property in what’s known as a declaration of trust.

If you want to make a living together agreement or a declaration of trust, you should get help from a family law solicitor. You can contact your nearest Citizens Advice for help to find a solicitor.

Legal differences between cohabitation and marriage/civil partnership

Your legal rights as a partner may depend on whether you are married/civil partnered or cohabiting.

Generally, you have fewer rights if you’re cohabiting than if you’re married.

Detailed legal differences between cohabiting and married couples fall into the following categories:


If you’re cohabiting and you die and you have separate bank accounts, your partner will not be legally able to access your bank account or pension.

If you have a joint account, then both you and your partner have access to the account, regardless of whether only one of you pays into it. If your relationship ends, and you can’t agree who the money belongs to, a court might have to decide. However, if one of you didn’t use the account at all, for example, you didn’t pay any money in or take any out, it may be difficult to claim that you have any right to it.

For those with joint bank accounts, a proportion of the balance would be used for calculating the value of an estate. Or, if the couple separates, a court might have to decide who the money belongs to. In either case, it could be wise to seek the support of specialist divorce and family lawyers throughout the process.

Married couples jointly own funds in a joint account, no matter who pays it in. And if one married partner dies, the bank could enable the widowed partner to withdraw the balance.

Tax benefits

If you’re not married/civil partnered, you and your partner do not have tax benefits as a couple.

If you want to give assets, like a house or a large amount of money, to your partner you may have to pay tax.


Parental responsibility lasts until a child reaches 18 years old.

Both parents are responsible for financially supporting their children, even if they are not living together.

If you and your partner separate, you will need to decide for your children. If it’s too difficult to do this amongst yourselves, the court can assist with a child arrangements order.

However, it’s important to note that for unmarried couples who live together, only a mother is able to appoint a guardian to act on her death. Similarly, a father is the only individual who can appoint a guardian to act on his death too.

Death and inheritance

If you’re not married or in a civil partnership, and your partner dies, you will not be treated as next of kin unless you and your partner have made a written will beforehand.

If you die, because your partner is not your next of kin, they will not have the right to your estate.

If one unmarried partner dies without leaving a will, the surviving partner will only inherit jointly-owned property. However, if one partner dies without leaving a will or does not leave enough for their partner to go on, the surviving partner could attempt to claim the estate in court.

You might also be able to access the Bereavement Support Payment if your partner dies and you meet eligibility requirements.

Remember that if you inherit a large estate or significant funds from an unmarried partner, you still need to pay inheritance tax.

Financial support (maintenance)

If you are cohabiting, neither partner has a legal duty to support the other financially. If you have children, find out how to arrange child maintenance

Each married partner has a legal duty to support the other even after your marriage has ended if you have made a legal agreement or if there is a court order (you and your partner can make an agreement during the marriage that neither of you will support the other)

Concluding thoughts

If you’re looking for more advice on living together without getting married, you can speak to your solicitor.

However, in complicated circumstances and for those dealing with difficult relationship breakdowns, the best course of action could be to contact your nearest Citizens Advice for help finding support.

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