What constitutes cohabitation

Cohabitation generally means living together as a couple. When people decide to live together, they do not automatically qualify for the same protection under the law as married people or people in a civil partnership. This includes so-called common law wives and husbands. When a relationship between two cohabiting people ends, there are numerous legal issues that can affect what happens next.

Cohabitation/living together agreements

People who decide to live together can make a cohabitation contract/living together agreement to outline their obligations and rights in various circumstances. Although such an agreement can be useful, they are not always legally binding. Promises made in a cohabitation/living together agreement can be made legally binding. In a few areas, cohabiting couples have the same rights as married couples, but in most cases they will be treated differently. The best solution to the problem of how to establish legal rights is for the couple to draw up legally enforceable agreements with the aid of a solicitor.

The home

Neither person has any basic rights to their partner’s property or maintenance. What happens to the home when a relationship breaks up depends on its ownership.

If the house was held as a ‘joint tenancy’ by the couple:

  • They will both hold an equal share in the home;

  • Neither person is able to take the other person’s share as long as the joint tenancy exists;

  • If one person dies, the other person will automatically inherit the whole property;

  • It is not possible for a person to will the property to another person unless both partners agree;

If the house was held as a ‘tenancy in common’:

  • It will be held in shares agreed upon when the property is bought. One person might own 75% of the property and the other person 25% of the property, for instance;

  • If the shares are not stated, the law will usually say that the shares are equal;

  • If one person dies, their share in the property will be passed on according to their will or, in the event that there is no will, it will pass on to their next of kin.

If the house was rented and the tenancy agreement names both people, then they are both responsible for the rent. If one person fails to pay the rent, the other person is liable. If both people are on the tenancy agreement, then they both have the right to stay in the house if the relationship breaks up. If only one person is named on the tenancy agreement, they can make the unnamed person leave unless they can establish ‘right of occupation’ in court.

If one person moved into the other person’s house, they do not automatically get any rights to the home. If the house is sold, the person who moved in will have no right to prevent the sale or stay living in the property. It is possible for the person to gain rights to the house if both people agree to share the ownership.

Tenancy can be contested in court. If one person contributed significantly to the property than the other (for example by making mortgage payments), it is possible in some cases for them to win rights to the property. If a person has children, they may be able to ask a court to transfer the ownership of a property if it is considered by the court to be in the best interests of the children.



Neither person will have any rights to the other person’s finances unless they have a joint account.

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For more information on:

  • Possessions
  • Death and inheritance
  • Tax
  • Can a partner qualify as next of kin?
  • Adoption
  • What will happen to any children if the relationship ends?
  • Qualifying for legal aid
  • Gay or Lesbian cohabitation
  • Cohabitation and student finances
  • Welfare benefits