Splitting Up (Unmarried Couples)

Published on:

July 20, 2005

Having looked at the financial situation for divorcees, now we turn to what happens when an unmarried couple split up.

If you recall, if you're divorcing you have a right to claim some form of maintenance from your ex if you are not in a position to support yourself, and to have a share in the assets considered to be "matrimonial property". This is regardless or whether you have contributed financially to the marriage.

An unmarried woman has no such right even if she has been living with her partner for a very long time. There is no such thing as a "common-law wife" in terms of legal recognition of the relationship. Once the relationship is over, it's over and, unless you've got children or jointly owned property, you will have no reason to see him ever again. Note the caveats though: unless you've got children or jointly owned property. And let me add another one: unless you believe you've acquired a "beneficial interest"!

We'll look at the last one in a minute as it's the most complicated and you should always bear in mind that the rights that you may have can work the other way around if you're in a better financial position than he is.


In cases of dispute the court can still make orders about where the children should live and what should happen to the family home and other assets, as you can apply to the court on their behalf to establish a claim.

The Child Support Agency will deal with maintenance for any children of the relationship. The level of financial support was based on a very complicated formula and this still applies to those receiving child maintenance. Since March 2003, the CSA has been using a new formula for new applicants. It's based on a percentage of the absent parent's net income and the number of children involved. It's 15% for one child, 20% for two and 25% for three or more though there are minimum and maximum amounts. People who had child support arrangements in place before March 2003 will transfer to the new system once the Government is satisfied the new scheme is working for the new cases.

So unless there are children involved, women cannot claim any kind of financial support from the departing partner.


The sort of dispute that may arise when childless couples separate is usually over splitting assets such as the home. Whether you are entitled to anything depends entirely on whether these are in joint names or, if not, whether you can establish that you have acquired some entitlement to those assets.

If you have assets that are quite clearly jointly owned then these will be split accordingly. If both your names are on the deeds of the house as equal owners, for example, then you'll automatically be entitled to your half share. And if you can't decide how to do it then you can ask the court to make the decision for you.

Beneficial interest

Usually you will have no right to remain in the home if you're asked to leave by a partner who is the sole legal owner of the property. But if you can show that you have contributed directly to buying it or to improving it in some substantial way then you may be able to show that you have acquired an interest, even though legal ownership belongs entirely to him. For example, if you paid the deposit or have contributed directly towards the mortgage instalments, this would constitute a beneficial interest. You've actually "bought" a little bit of the house even though the title deeds don't say you have.

However, difficulties can arise if your partner has been paying the mortgage and you've been paying all the other household bills. It may just have been the method you were both happy with at the time but you would somehow have to prove that this arrangement was based on an understanding or agreement that you were effectively making contributions towards the purchase of the house itself by freeing up his income.

There's a well-known case called Burns v Burns which set a legal precedent in 1984. A woman had lived with her partner for 17 years in a house he'd bought in his sole name. They had two children but never married although she'd taken on the use of his surname. During the relationship she had spent a fair bit of money on the house and on buying furniture but she'd never contributed directly to the mortgage payments and nor could she establish the existence of an arrangement whereby she was to have a proprietary interest in it. Two children and 17 years of her life and she got nothing.

Conversely it's amazing what you may be entitled to on the basis of a promise. In the more recent case of Rowe v Prance, a woman gave up her rented flat and moved onto a boat which had been bought by her chap on the basis that he was going to leave his wife and move in with her. When the relationship fell apart, the court ruled that she was entitled to a half share in the proceeds of the sale of the boat -- even though it was in his sole name -- simply because he had assured her that it was theirs to share.

It is, of course, a costly process if you have to take this type of dispute through the courts so it's always better to try and keep things amicable so you can negotiate effectively without too much help from the legal profession.

And finally, as prevention is better than cure, don't forget you can always draw up a cohabitation agreement, as outlined in this article.

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