Inheritance claims from unmarried couples have surged, as lawyers blame the common-law spouse “myth” for people wrongly assuming they will inherit assets.
Couples who have lived together for some time may believe the widely held misconception that they become “common-law spouses”, a term that is frequently used but has no legal recognition.
Many believe, incorrectly, that they automatically acquire the same legal status as a married couple, but when unmarried couples separate, or one dies, they are not afforded the same rights as married couples.
Legal actions increase four-fold
The number of legal actions brought by individuals wanting a share of estates left by loved ones and relatives has increased four-fold over the last 15 years, according to data published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). In 2007, there were 43 inheritance claims, but by 2020, this figure had risen to 192 and remained high at 165 the year after.
Heather Roberts, a partner at the law firm Bexley Beaumont, said that many unmarried men and women were simply unaware that they would have to make a claim to be entitled to assets left behind by their partners.
She said: “The size of this increase might seem surprising but we must remember that we have seen further growth in the number of couples who live together without marrying.
“The value of estates has also increased, principally due to a tremendous rise in house prices across the UK. Despite both of those things, many individuals are still not undertaking any financial planning, such as making a will, to make provision for their loved ones.
“In the case of some of my clients that has been because they assumed that they would simply inherit their partners’ assets whereas, in fact, they are not automatically entitled to anything.
“They only become aware that the idea of a common-law spouse is just a myth when realising that they actually need to make a claim in order to stand a chance of inheriting anything at all.
“It is a reality that often compounds the shock and distress of having lost a loved one, yet can be avoided so relatively easily by making a will.”
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Regarding the MoJ figures, she added: “We should also bear in mind that while the number of claims made has increased four-fold, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Many other enquiries about whether it’s possible to secure financial provision don’t actually proceed to a full claim.”
The MoJ figures come after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed last December that the number of cohabiting couples in England and Wales had increased by a quarter – from 4.8 million to just over six million – since 2011.
Meanwhile, marriage rates for opposite-sex couples have fallen to their lowest on record since 1862, according to ONS figures. In 2019, for men, there were 18.6 marriages per 1,000 unmarried men; for women, there were 17.2 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women.
MoJ figures regarding inheritance claims have not been increasing year-on-year. However, over longer periods of time, the rise in the number of claims is stark.
For example, in 2008, there were 80 claims; in 2009 there were 110; and in 2010 there were 81. The number of claims continued to stay in the 80s until 2014, when it rose to 104, and peaked in 2020.
Last month, the Women and Equalities Committee published its own report on the financial consequences of cohabitation and recommended a publicity campaign to tackle the common-law myth, calling ministers to think again about inheritance provision for unmarried couples.