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Outdated common law marriage rules dragged through the courts

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

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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.

38 Comments

Anonymous

STOP CALLING B HALE BEYONCE

(21)(3)

Ellie

this article doesn’t mention lady hale??

(11)(1)

Anonymous

Regardless of whether the article mentions Lady Hale, this is a point worth making.

(2)(1)

anon

…………………………….

What the hell is this garbage?

(9)(2)

Quo Vadis

This Beyonce shit is unfunny and really quite disrespectful.

(18)(4)

Anonymous

…To whom?

Nobody aside from the ‘widow’, her husband and Beyoncé is mentioned in the article. ‘If you liked it you should’ve put a ring on it’? No?

(2)(2)

Anonymous

Katie definitely hasn’t been playing to the crowd as of late.

(6)(0)

Anonymous

Yet more drivel.

I’m off to RoF.

(12)(3)

Mumsie

See ya. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out

(7)(12)

Anonymous

Cohab agreements are not necessarily legally binding.

(6)(0)

Not Amused

I don’t understand what is “outdated” here. The man was already married and remained married. Is it “outdated” that he didn’t somehow automatically get a divorce and a re-marriage without any actual effort on his own part?

I am against the high levels of legal ignorance in society. But I think even I would have to accept that most people understand that not getting a divorce might have some financial consequences if you die. The concept of marriage and divorce is one which is widely advertised in society.

In my view marriage laws themselves need fundamental reform. The Matrimonial Causes Act is the product of a misogynistic age and has been interpreted in a way which both ‘rewards’ but basically infantilises women. Given that we know the family division is basically failing, it seems a poor time to start automatically creating marriages by default for unsuspecting couples.

(19)(2)

Anonymous

‘I am against the high levels of legal ignorance in society.’

Bill Gates probably thinks you’re ignorant with regard to starting a software/hardware company. Not everyone’s a lawyer.

(3)(9)

Not Amused

What I am against is citizens in a modern democratic state being kept in a state of ignorance as to their own legal system.

How can we make people liable in money for committing a tort, when they don’t even understand the word?

How can we permit our entire society to believe a will allows free testimentary disposition and not tell them of the 75 Act?

How can we put them in prison or hold them bound to contract or deny them access to their children?

We live in a true paradox of a society. No state has afforded citizens greater control over their own law while simultaneously keeping them completely ignorant of it.

The person kept ignorant is a victim. I reject the suggestion that he or she is a figure of fun. Indeed I am angry on their behalf.

(14)(2)

Quo Vadis

Very eloquently put.

(1)(1)

Anonymous

How are you going to achieve all of that, though? Time after time the media publicises the plight of people who are either victims or perpetrators of torts, or who have successfully contested a will or lost such a battle, or who have been left homeless because their partner didn’t marry them or even make a will in their favour and the family threw them out of what is now their property? They basically don’t want to pay for legal advice.

(2)(0)

Pantman

While these are noble aims, it has to be said that people fail modules in their law degrees, and even fail (or drop out) their entire degree because they cannot properly grasp these issues. it should be hardly surprising that the person in the street doesn’t understand the law under these circumstances.

There is one concept one should be able to grasp though: certainty. Am I certain that X is a proper way of considering Y? If I am not, then I should be either researching the issue or getting advice on it.

(1)(0)

Not Amused

Obviously we need to start teaching law in schools.

People fail chemistry degrees but that doesn’t mean I would take it out of the syllabus for kids. Allowing children to leave schools without a solid education in the constitution and criminal law is unforgivable. Adding in teaching on contract and tort would also seem prudent.

The word lawyer is not a protected term. We are a nation where every citizen is in effect a law maker – why shouldn’t they be lawyers too? While the implications of collective ignorance are extreme – the lack of legal education for the police and media is farcical.

MJ

Not Amused you make an excellent point very eloquently and touch on one of the reasons that I was, and I am sure that many others were, attracted to studying law. I can think of few subjects of as much day to day importance to people as the rules which literally govern everything that we do.

Teaching law in schools is surely at least as important as teaching about literature, religion or history and the fact that it’s not broadly offered in schools as an option (let alone as a compulsory subject) is failing society and contributes to civic disengagement.

Anonymous

A lot of this is already covered by the ‘citizenship’ syllabus which is a compulsory subject at secondary school:

http://www.teachingcitizenship.org.uk/about-citizenship/citizenship-curriculum

Like a lot of these education initiatives I expect it looks a lot better on paper than it does in school.

Anonymous

And given that the claimant here is 69 (“dude”) she won’t have been taught ‘citizenship’ as this is a modern addition to the syllabus, and has probably lived her life blissfully ignorant that women still have to fight for their rights. If he wouldn’t get divorced, marry her or even write a Will in her favour, she wouldn’t have known she might be up against a Court case to stay in her home on his death. Ignorance of these kinds of things is a problem with that generation.

MJ

At my school we didn’t do citizenship, but I’m not sure that’s enough from everything that I have heard from people who did it. Why teach it in a smiley diluted form? Science, history and english lit are not taught like that – they are taught as strong subjects in their own right. Why not the same for law?

Anonymous

@MJ

I’m not suggesting that the current citizenship syllabus is the answer to all society’s legal woes, however it does seem like a good start. I’m all for schools offering law as an academic subject in its own right, but if we’re talking about educating people in some fundamentals to make their life easier I don’t think all seven foundations of legal knowledge are necessarily required.

I also wouldn’t be so sure that science, history and english lit are not taught in ‘smiley diluted form’ these days either…

eyeswatching

When she purchased the house with him, they would have had advice on how it could be owned. Wife over 50 when separated and just maybe, they didn’t want to give the wife anything -as assets would have been divided on divorce. Cant have it both ways, and just because this woman is 69 does not mean she did not know exactly what she was doing when she was 51. Him too.

Anonymous

That’s what they did do until 2006.

(0)(0)

Frances Sieber

This is a serious issue. There is a simple regime called marriage/civil partnership in this country which provides protection. The problem is ignorance of the law. Common law wives do not exist and have limited protection. This grandmother may be able to make a claim against the estate of the partner, if she was dependent. We need to raise the level of ignorance.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I agree, people are insufficiently ignorant, we must do better at educating them badly.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

* The Central London County Court, the county courts are not a unitary court, unlike the Crown Court.

(2)(6)

Anonymous

There is now only one county court that sits in numerous places. Keep up!

(7)(0)

Anonymous

I can assure you that there is a Central London County Court just by Regents Park. #cringe

(1)(2)

Anonymous

It is in the Royal Courts of Justice Thomas Moore Building, not near the Regents Park.

Also it is now the County Court at Central London Court.

Technically there is now only “one” County Court heard in various places. No idea why, pointless idea in reality which some mid-tier management sort probably invented to keep him/her self busy when they went around the MoJ looking for people to cut.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

This doesn’t take away from the fact that the estranged wife is a terrible grasping witch for actually taking the inheritance.

(3)(7)

Anonymous

Agreed. If they haven’t been living together for years, why does the old bat think she’s entitled to his money?

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SodsLaw

I don’t know anything about this case in particular, but presumably it’s based at least in part on the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. If so then the case has nothing to do with “cast[ing] aside entrenched legal principles” – the Act has allowed cohabitees to bring claims against estates since 1995. Not sure how this is news.

(7)(0)

Lord Lyle of the Isles

I have established , via the School of Oriental and African, Persian dept, that the squiggly line in the green box is in fact an ‘e’ in Farsi and the squigly line in the red box is a ‘y’.

But only Sauron and LC know their meaning. Only the One Ring can decode it.

(0)(1)

Anonymous

It’s a bogstandard 1975 Act claim.

(1)(0)

Chancerypupil

OH for god sake. I hate all this “co-habitants rights!!!! law needs to be brought into the 21st century!!!”

Its rubbish. Have these people never read Musa v Holiday?? Co-habitant claimants under the 75 Act have it *way* too good. No one points out that, actually her 75 Act claim will probarbly result in her getting more than 50% of the estate (not including costs). Frequently co-habitant claimants get far more than they should.

Take Musa v Holiday- cohabitant claimant ending up with 90% of the deceased English estate!!! How is that unfair?

Take an example estate. Lets say its worth £1,200,000 with a House worth £300,000 in it. All of it left to the deceased’s son. The cohabitant girl friend of 9 years brings a claim. Here is the likely result:

IHT/other tax liabilities- £500,000
Executors Fees- £70,000
Cohabitant is awarded the House- £300,000 (absolute interest)
Cohabitant is awarded “reasonable financial provision” of £100,000
Court costs- £200,000
The actual beneficiary receives: £30,000

This is a standard outcome. Cohabitant Claimants who were in longer relationships nearly ALWAYS get much much more than the actual beneficiary.

Why a life interest in the property is not sufficient is beyond me.

(2)(0)

Chancerypupil

And before anyone says it- yes I know in Musa v Holiday there was also a Turkish-Cypriot estate that the other beneficiaries were entitled to, but still its the principle. She got a super-massive windfall and ended up far wealthier than she ever would have been if her boyfriend had remained alive.

(0)(0)

eyeswatching

just maybe, he wanted his wife to have his share as then it would pass onto their children. They might have been ignorant about different rights between married and unmarried couples – although I seriously doubt it, but fact is he did not make provision for her and maybe that was deliberate. They had advice at the time they brought their property and could have held it so their respective shares would go to each other – they chose not to do that. Maybe she wanted her share to go to her children. What would the wife have received if they had divorced? Maybe that was the reason they did not. Anyway – only the county court so far and the wife should certainly appeal if trying to make her pay all the costs.

(1)(0)

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