The law

The law for heterosexual couples

There is no such thing as ‘common law marriage’

There is no such thing as ‘common law marriage’. Heterosexual unmarried couples in England and Wales do not have the same legal rights as married couples.

Some legal protection can be gained through property and trust law principles, but it is a complicated process that needs expert legal guidance.

The law has been criticised by many people as unfair so the government asked the Law Commission to review the law on cohabitation; in particular, the remedies available to deal with the financial consequences of when a cohabiting relationship ends.

The Law Commission published their recommendations for introducing a new scheme of financial remedies for cohabitants in July 2007. In late 2011, the government announced that it would not be implementing the recommendations. There are currently no plans for reform of the law on cohabitation.

Further information on the Law Commission’s project on cohabitation can be found on their website.

Scottish law

The legal information on this website does not apply to Scotland; Scottish law is different.

In Scotland new legal rights to protect cohabitants (people who live together) when their relationship breaks down or one partner dies were introduced in May 2006 by the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006.

But, couples living together in Scotland do not have the same rights as married couples and civil partners.

A guide on family law and living together in Scotland has been produced by the Scottish Government.

Civil Partnerships

In December 2005 the Civil Partnership Act came into force, allowing gay and lesbian couples to get legal recognition for their relationships by registering a civil partnership at a register office or other ‘approved premises’.

In March 2010, parliament removed the prohibition on the registration of civil partnerships on religious premises. However, religious premises are not obliged to permit civil partnerships and it will not be possible for any Church of England premises to become ‘approved premises’ unless the General Synod gives its consent.

Any couple who register a civil partnership in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will gain access to legal rights and responsibilities in the same way as couples who marry. In March 2012, a public consultation will begin to consider how to make civil marriage (not religious marriage) available to same-sex couples.

Although the Civil Partnership Act 2004 covers the whole of the UK, there may be differences in the way the legislation is applied in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Scottish Government website has information on the differences in the law on civil partnerships in England and Wales. Information about civil partnership in Northern Ireland can be found on the NI Direct website.

Further information

Policy and legislation relating to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality is available on the Home Office website

Information on how to register a civil partnership can be found on the Directgov website

Get Hitched – is as guide to civil partnership produced by Stonewall

Advicenow has published a guide to Living Together

The full text of the Civil Partnership Act can be downloaded at