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Married or Living Together: Spot the Legal Differences

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With the ever-increasing cost of marriage and getting on to the property ladder, it’s no wonder more and more couples are opting to remain unmarried and continue cohabiting. For many people, marriage won’t change the dynamic of a relationship, but how does staying unmarried affect your legal rights? We explore the differences between marriage and living together.

Legal Status

Living together’ is a bit of a blanket term as no legal definition of the term exists, but it’s generally considered to mean living together as a couple without being married. It is however possible to formalise your living arrangement and draw up a legal agreement known as a cohabitation contract. You’ll need legal advice from a recognised family solicitor to set this up and it’s not always clear whether these contracts are legally enforceable, but they exist to outline matters such as how a jointly-owned home is shared. So how do these statuses affect different aspects of your life?


If you are living together and both of you have separate accounts, naturally neither of you will have access to the money held in the other’s account. So if one partner dies, any money in their account becomes property of the deceased partner and cannot be accessed until the estate is settled. If a married couple have separate bank accounts, the bank may allow one partner to access a small sum of the remaining balance in the event of the death of the other partner.

Of course, both couples living together and married can open a joint account and all money in it becomes jointly held regardless of who pays into the account. For couples living together, the money still belongs to both parties in the event of separation, but it may be difficult to claim a right to the account if you didn’t use or pay into the account. Whether married or not, if you separate from your partner it’s always worth considering closing a joint account to prevent the other from accessing funds or running up debts that you will be accountable for.

If one partner dies and the couple are unmarried, the surviving partner will continue to have access to the account but a sum of the balance will be taken into account when calculating the value of the estate of the deceased partner. If however the couple are married, the surviving partner immediately becomes responsible for the entire account including any debts or overdrafts that may have been run up by the other partner.


If you have parental responsibility you are entitled to contribute to important decisions such as a child’s home, education, name, property and education until they turn 18, or marry between the ages of 16 and 18. Parental responsibility can be tricky to acquire however if you’re not married to the child’s mother, but you can get this by obtaining a parental responsibility order, registering the birth of the child with the mother or becoming the child’s guardian in the event of the mother’s death.


If the couple are married and one dies without leaving a will, the surviving partner will inherit some or all of the estate. However, if an unmarried couple wish the other to inherit and they don’t jointly own a property, a will must be made.  Married couples are exempt from paying inheritance tax, but this does not apply to unmarried couples.

In association with Vincents Solicitors

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