The myth of the ‘common law wife’ – unmarried couples and inheritance claims

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Couples who live together without getting married often assume they have ‘common law’ rights. But do they?


We often hear from women in particular who think that their position as a ‘common law wife’ gives them legal protection. Regrettably this is not the case. The ‘common law wife’ is a myth, not a legal reality.

The legal status of unmarried couples typically becomes an issue when they split up. And this is becoming an ever increasing problem as the number of people cohabiting rises in the UK. In the last 20 years the number has more than doubled.

The myth of the common law wife has taken hold

It can come as a great shock to unmarried people when they find that they do not enjoy the same rights as their married counterparts, even if they have been cohabiting for many years and have brought up a family together. Somehow the myth of the ‘common law wife’ and ‘common law husband’ has taken hold and this has led to millions of people living in ignorance of their true legal position.

It is not only in the area of relationship breakdown that the unmarried person’s limited legal rights is problematic. We are also seeing a growing number of inheritance disputes arising when one partner dies and leaves the surviving partner with no adequate financial provision.

Common law marriage and the problem of inheritance

A huge proportion of unmarried couples seem to be unaware that if one of them dies without leaving a will benefiting the other, the surviving partner will not automatically inherit anything from them, unless they happen to own property as ‘joint tenants’. Contrast this with the legal position of a married couple, where the surviving spouse will inherit all or some of the deceased spouse’s estate even if no will has been made.

As a result, inheritance disputes can arise in relation to the estate of the unmarried partner who has passed away. This can make a difficult time for the survivor even more stressful and it can also lead to divisions and rifts within families, particularly blended families.

An overwhelming majority of people think the law is out of touch with modern life and should be reformed so that married and unmarried couples enjoy the same rights. However, a change in the law is unlikely to come soon and even when it does, we doubt that it will put married and unmarried relationships on exactly the same footing. So for now we would urge cohabitees to recognise that they lack legal protection and take steps to prevent problems arising.

How we can help with an inheritance claim by a common law wife of husband

If it is already too late and you have been left suffering financial hardship because your ‘common law husband’ or ‘common law wife’ has died without making proper provision for you then you can call our inheritance dispute team for advice on what legal options you have and, in particular, whether the Inheritance Act is likely to help you.

Call us on 0808 139 1599 for a free case assessment and details of no win, no fee funding or email us at [email protected]