Navigating cohabitation agreements: Key considerations for unmarried couples

27th July 2023

In recent years, the number of unmarried couples cohabiting in the UK has increased significantly from 20.6 per cent in 2011 to 24.3 per cent in 2021.

It is a common misconception that cohabiting couples receive similar legal protections as married couples, but this is not the case.

Common law spouses are an ‘urban myth’ in England and Wales meaning unmarried couples have limited legal protection. To safeguard their rights, couples may draw up a cohabitation agreement.

What is a cohabitation agreement?

A cohabitation agreement is a legally binding document between an unmarried couple who live together. The document outlines how certain aspects of your life will be managed during your cohabitation and in the event of a breakup or one partner’s death.

What do cohabitation agreements cover?

Cohabitation agreements set out who owns what and in what proportion, and covers elements such as the following:

  • Ownership of the property
  • Arrangements for children
  • Financial matters, including payment of the household bills
  • How the mortgage (or rent) should be paid and by whom
  • Protection of pension rights
  • Pets and household possessions
  • Next of kin rights
  • Division of any such assets on separation

Navigating these agreements can seem daunting but understanding the key considerations can help ensure your interests are protected.

Are cohabitation agreements legally binding?

Cohabitation agreements are legally binding contracts if they are properly drafted, executed and signed as a deed.

This makes it essential to seek legal advice before preparing the agreement and without which it may even be claimed that a party was unaware of the rights they had surrendered which could make the agreement void, either wholly or partly.

Cohabitation agreements are currently facing no recently reported instances of being contested in court. This could be due to the growing acceptance and understanding that cohabitation agreements, when drafted in clear language and where both parties are properly represented will reduce the likelihood of disputes.

Why should you have a cohabitation agreement?

Without a cohabitation agreement, you may not be legally protected in the event of a relationship breakdown or the death of your partner.

A cohabitation agreement can bring peace of mind to your relationship. By reaching an agreement before or during your shared living arrangement, you will:

  • Prevent misunderstandings about your rights and responsibilities as cohabitants, especially regarding property ownership
  • Avoid challenges and disputes in the event of a breakup
  • Have clear documentation of your intentions should you need them in legal proceedings
  • Gain a thorough understanding of your financial obligations

Seek legal advice

When drawing up a cohabitation agreement, it is strongly recommended both parties seek legal advice as to the terms and implications of the agreement. Courts are far more inclined to enforce an agreement where it is clear both parties have received advice as to the rights they are acquiring or surrendering.

Updating your cohabitation agreement

The progression of a relationship often necessitates change, growth and mutual understanding. As with any legal document, the agreement should be reviewed regularly and updated as necessary.

You should consider updating the agreement regularly. Here is why:

  • Changes in financial circumstances – Over time, financial circumstances can change dramatically. You or your partner may experience job and salary changes, inheritances or other significant fluctuations in personal wealth. These changes should be reflected in your cohabitation agreement to ensure ongoing fairness.
  • Changes in property ownership – If you or your partner buy or sell property while you are living together, it is crucial to update your agreement. This ensures that in the event of a breakup, there is a clear understanding of who owns what and how assets will be divided.
  • The arrival of children – If you or your partner decide to have or adopt children, your cohabitation agreement should reflect this significant change. It can detail issues such as the children’s arrangements, financial responsibilities, and any agreed-upon parenting roles. It is crucial to consider the best interests of the children during the drafting process.

Updating your cohabitation agreement isn’t about anticipating the end of a relationship but ensuring that you both feel secure and protected within it.

A cohabitation agreement provides couples with the legal protection and clarity that unmarried couples need.

By considering what is covered in an agreement and seeking expert legal advice, you can create an agreement that provides you with peace of mind and clear expectations for your cohabitation.

As with all legal advice costs can vary depending upon the complexity and length of the agreement and the variety and level of assets and their worth. An accurate cost estimate can be provided upon enquiry.

If you would like more advice on cohabitation agreements, get in touch with our expert team today. Please contact David Smith, Head of Family Law, on 01543 263456 or at


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