Outdated common law marriage rules dragged through the courts

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By Katie King on

But should grieving grandmother have listened to cast-iron legal advice from Beyoncé?


A grieving grandmother is hoping to cast aside entrenched legal principles as she fights for her deceased boyfriend’s assets — in a tough case that would never have happened had the pair got hitched.

There is a widely held perception among non-married, co-habiting couples that ‘common law marriage’ entitles them to the same legal rights as married couples. Trouble is, it’s a complete myth.

Paula Myers — national head of contentious probate at Irwin Mitchell — explains:

Couples who co-habit do not have the same rights as married couples or those in a civil partnership.

While couples are beginning to realise this — prompting one to bring a judicial review against civil partnership law in the High Court — it’s all too common for unsuspecting, non-law savvy partners to find themselves out of pocket on their companion’s death, when assets automatically pass to estranged widowers and widows.

And that’s exactly what happened to grieving grandmother Joy Williams, who lived with her partner — dentist Norman Martin — for 18 years. When he died of a heart attack in 2012, his assets went to his estranged wife — because the pair had never divorced.

Williams, 69, fears she will lose her house and has taken her case to the County Court at Central London, where it is being heard before His Honour Judge Gerald. The hearing is expected to finish on Thursday.

Too many couples fall into this trap. Myers urges them to take simple steps to ensure that their assets are fairly distributed on their death. She says:

Couples moving in together without getting married should set up a cohabitation agreement — a legally binding document that outlines who owns property. They should also ensure their wills are up to date.

Another option, of course, would be to get hitched — as Beyoncé famously advises.