When unmarried people live together – or co-habit – they do not enjoy the same legal protections as married people or a couple in a civil partnership. When a relationship between two unwed cohabiting people ends, there are numerous legal issues that can affect what happens next.

Cohabitation agreements

So-called common law spouses have no rights under the law, but unmarried couples who live together can make a cohabitation agreement to outline their obligations and rights and to lay out how property and assets are to be distributed. This is best drawn up with the aid of a solicitor to ensure the agreement is legally enforceable.

The home

Neither person has any legal right to maintenance from their partner or to their partner’s property. 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, 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, 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, unless both people have agreed to share the ownership.


Neither person will have any rights to the other person’s finances unless they have a joint account. If they do have a joint account, the money will belong to both people, but if one person didn’t use the account at all, it will be hard for them to claim any right to it.

Neither person is liable for any debts in the other person’s name. If the debts are under both names or if a person is acting as guarantor on the person’s debt, they are liable.


Possessions owned by a person before the relationship will continue to be theirs and the person who bought an object will be its owner. Things bought from a joint account will belong to both people and things given as a gift to the other person will be owned by the recipient, but this can be hard to prove.

Death and inheritance

If one person in a relationship dies without leaving a will, the surviving person will not inherit anything automatically except jointly held property. However, if the death of one person means the other person does not have enough to live on, the surviving partner might be able to go to court and claim from the estate. If a will has been made, a person will still have to pay inheritance tax, unlike a married partner.

Can a partner qualify as next of kin?

In some circumstances they can. When a person goes into hospital, they may be asked to name their next of kin and most hospitals will accept the name of an unmarried partner as next of kin. The same applies for some other organisations, including prisons.

Cohabitation and student finances

A person’s eligibility for a student grant will be dependent on their partner’s income when they live together. The partner’s income does not affect the person’s entitlement to a student loan.

Welfare benefits

A person living with a partner will be assessed in the same way irrespective of marital status. They will be expected to claim as a couple.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.