Let’s stay together?: Cohabiting in lockdown (and beyond)
It is a sad reality of the current government guidelines in relation to social distancing that the vast majority of us have to spend time away from most of the people we love. However, for others, the lockdown has in fact pushed relationships in the opposite direction.
Upon the announcement of lockdown measures, many couples had to make the difficult decision about whether to spend an indefinite period apart in their separate homes, or live together (at least temporarily) when they may not have been ready to do so. This is of course a significant test for any relationship.
In many cases, this decision will have had to be made very quickly and without as much discussion as they would have wished. This could potentially be a source of conflict as time goes on.
Cohabiting partners do not have the same rights as married or civil partners under the law. This is the case, even if you have children together and cohabit for a long time. Cohabitation disputes can be complex, upsetting and expensive.
From a legal perspective, there are a number of factors that it may be helpful to discuss and agree, ideally before cohabiting:
- Where will you live? For couples who are living together during lockdown, this may involve living in a home already owned or rented by one partner. Are there any restrictions about who can live in the home or whether animals can stay at the property as breach could potentially cause significant problems?
- Is there intended to be any change in the ownership of the property? Most couples are not likely to want this, at least in the short term. However, if such a change is required you should each seek independent legal advice about the consequences of this and any legal documents that need to be completed in order to bring about the change.
- What financial contributions will each partner make and who will pay which bills? It is advisable that the owning partner does not request contributions specifically for mortgage payments as this could potentially give rise to a dispute about ownership in the future.
- Should there be a joint account for certain joint expenses and how will this be contributed to? Will there be an overdraft on this account or a limit on how much can be withdrawn at any one time? What happens to this account (and any debit or credit balance if you separate).
- What are your respective debt positions? It can be helpful to have an honest conversation about this. If there are to be any joint expenses, who would be responsible for any resulting debt (for instance, for some expenses you could be jointly and severally liable meaning that one party could be made responsible for all of the debt).
- Who owns which items in the home? What about any jointly purchased items?
- What is the long term plan? Is the cohabitation just for lockdown, or will it be more permanent?
- What happens if the relationship breaks down?
It can be very helpful to set out all of the above points (and anything else that is important to you) within a document known as a cohabitation agreement. If this document is properly drafted and signed with the opportunity for both parties to have legal advice and without duress then the terms of the agreement is likely to be held to be valid.
Whilst this can seem somewhat unromantic, it could potentially save significant upset and also potentially legal costs further down the line. As well as dealing with what would happen if you should separate, a cohabitation agreement can also protect you if either of you were to die and should be considered alongside a review of your wills.
The best way of ensuring that a cohabitation agreement is binding and valid is for you each to seek independent legal advice from a specialist family lawyer.