In the eyes of many people around the world, marriage does not have to be synonymous with love. Millions of people live together, have children and do all the things married couples do without ever tying the knot. Of course, on the reverse side there are people who see marriage as a very important part of expressing love for their significant other, and want their lives to be joined in an officially recognised way, having dreamed about their wedding day since early childhood.


But from a legal perspective there are some massively important differences between a couple being married and just being together. Sometimes it is easy for people who are not married to be caught out by rules or regulations that only benefit married couples, and of course marriages are harder to legally walk away from than, let’s say, simple cohabitation.


Let’s take a look at how being married or just being a long term couple can affect certain situations:



Living together:


When couples are living together it is often the case that they will have separate bank accounts which only they as individuals have access to. If one partner should sadly pass away the remaining partner would not have access to the deceased person’s account, unable to be accessed until the estate is settled.


If there is a joint account that both partners have access to then the contents of that account will belong to both people should the relationship end. It would be up to the couple to decide, probably based on the logic of how much each person paid into it, how to split the amount between them both.


If the account is in joint names, on the death of one partner, the other partner becomes entitled to the balance and can continue to have unlimited access to the account. However, a proportion of the balance will be taken into account when calculating the value of the estate of the person who has died.


If you separate from your partner, you should consider closing an account in joint names to avoid your partner spending money that isn’t theirs, leaving you to handle the payments.



Married couple:


If a married couple share a single account, the money in that account belongs to both people regardless of who put it into the account. Should one partner die, the money automatically belongs to the other partner. Debts and overdrafts relating to a joint bank account will be the responsibility of both or either partner, no matter which partner is responsible.


If each partner in a married couple has a separate bank account and one dies, the bank may allow the other partner to withdraw the balance providing the amount is small.


Similar to those living together, on separating from your partner, you should consider closing an account in joint names to avoid your partner accessing the funds or running up debts which will be your responsibility.




No matter if you are married or not, people with parental responsibility are entitled to have a say in important decisions about a child’s life such as the child’s home, health, education, religion, name, money and property.


Contact with the kids after separation can be sorted out by the parents, informally. For example if both parties are happy to split the time with the children evenly, then that’s great and is far less stressful for everyone involved.


However, if this isn’t possible, you can apply to the court for a child arrangements order.


Financial support of children is the responsibility of both parents. The father is just as responsible even if he is neither living with the mother nor named on the child’s birth certificate.


The father can be contacted by the Child Maintenance Service for maintenance if he is not living with the mother. Similarly, if the child lives with the father, the mother can be contacted. Both same-sex parents are responsible for financially supporting their children if they are the children’s legal parents and can be contacted by the Child Maintenance Service for maintenance.


In the case of parents who live together but are not married, either one can appoint a guardian to act on their behalves should they die. With married couples, either parent can appoint a guardian to act in the event of both parents dying.


Concerning inheritance, even if there is no will, the child of unmarried and married parents has a legal right to inherit from both legal parents and the families of both parents.


Both married and cohabiting couples can apply for adoption. 


Living Arrangements:


Living together:


If you are the unmarried partner of a tenant, whether in private or social housing accommodation, you will usually have no rights to stay in the accommodation if the tenant asks you to leave.  It is therefore advisable for partners who are living together to be joint tenants, as this gives them equal rights and responsibilities.




Both married partners have the right to live in the matrimonial home. It does not matter in whose name the tenancy agreement was made. This applies unless a court has ordered otherwise, for example, in the course of separation or divorce proceedings.


Benefits and legal aid:


When one partner of a couple is assessed for legal aid, the other partner’s income and capital are usually taken into account.


However, this will not be the case if:


  • there is a conflict of interest between you, for example, you are on opposing sides in the court case, or
  • you live apart and at least one of you considers the relationship to be over.

Death and Inheritance:


Living together:


If one partner dies without leaving a will, the surviving partner will not automatically inherit anything unless the couple owned property jointly. As an unmarried couple, you need to make wills if you wish to make sure that the other partner inherits.


If one partner dies without leaving enough in their will for the other to live on, the surviving partner may be able to go to court to claim from the estate.


If you inherit money or property from an unmarried partner, you are not exempt from paying inheritance tax, as married couples are.


Married couples:


When your married partner dies, you will inherit under the will of the dead partner if it makes provision for you.


If either married partner dies without making a will, the other will inherit all or some of the estate.


Domestic Violence:


No matter your marital status, you can go to court for an order to protect yourself and your children if your partner is violent. The court can order the violent partner to leave the home for a certain period of time and, if the court order is not obeyed, the violent partner can be arrested.




Living together:


If you are unmarried, you are taxed separately. Each partner is entitled to a personal allowance when calculating how much income tax they must pay.




Spouses are taxed independently and each partner can claim a personal allowance. Where at least one person in a married couple was born before 6 April 1935, a married couple’s allowance can be claimed as well as the personal allowance.


You can find more detail about the legal differences that being married or not has on couples here. 


We can learn from a real life story as well: 


Gill Lavery’s fiancé Paolo died suddenly in July 2017, after eight years together. The pair had a toddler son and were planning a second child at the time. Gill was then catapulted into ‘bureaucratic nightmare’ because they were not married.


Gill was not automatically entitled to any of Paolo’s, estate and really struggled, amidst the grief, to care for her young son.


She said:


“Legally, our relationship meant nothing. I’d always believed we were ‘as good as’ married. But despite widespread use of the term, there is no such thing as common law marriage in Britain — and when Paolo died, I had no rights at all.   


Data released yesterday by the Office for National Statistics revealed cohabiting couples are the fastest growing type of family in the UK, with 3.4 million couples living together without being married or civil partners.


Other research has shown only 26 per cent of them have made wills. 


It happened to me — and it could happen to you, too, if you are part of a family and don’t get married.” 


So, what can we learn from these differences?

It is better to be prepared for the worst rather than dealing with the consequences of misfortune and wishing you had acted differently in hindsight.


Set up a will!


Massive amounts of our lives are spent working to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. You may have a house or flat (in the UK or overseas), shares, savings, investments as well as your personal possessions. All of these assets are your ‘estate’. Making a will ensures that when you die your estate is shared according to your wishes.


Everyone should have a will, but it is even more important if you have children, you own property or have savings, investments, insurance policies or you own a business.


No matter if you are married or cohabiting, you should definitely have a will made up to ensure your loved ones are looked after. We can do this at Lisa’s Law and have tonnes of experience, making sure it is done exactly how you want down to the last detail. 


Cohabitation agreements are very helpful:


A cohabitation agreement is a legal document between unmarried couples who are living together. It sets out arrangements for finances, property and children while you’re living together and if you split up, become ill or die.


You can make an agreement at any time. It’s good to do it before you move in together. But you may want to consider one if you decide to have children or get a mortgage.


Without one you do not have many rights, and certainly it makes it harder for the courts to deal with splitting estates compared to married couples.


Reasons for setting up a cohabitation agreement: 


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


Lisa’s Law can help you every step of the way; our family law specialists have a great amount of experience in this area. Some things you might want to think about how to divide up are:

  • property
  • investments
  • pension
  • savings


If you have any questions about this topic, or need any legal advice related to it on unrelated please do not hesitate to get in contact with us on 020 7928 0276 or email in to – we are here to help.


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