The separation of the French president Francois Hollande and his partner Valerie Trierweiler has dominated the headlines for the past week or so, but one of the most interesting aspects of this sad event is that they were not married.

French law for unmarried couples who separate is different from English law, but it is a timely reminder of the difficulties that cohabitating couples in England and Wales face when they split up. The myth that there is such a thing as ‘common law marriage’, which would give either of the two people who have lived and built up assets together any automatic rights to a share of those assets, is fading. However it can still come as a big shock to one or other when separating to learn that there is no presumption of an equal share in the house or business or other assets that each owns.

Couples who have married can by law share their assets in a flexible way to meet the different needs of themselves and their children when they separate. For example, even if a property is owned by the husband in his sole name, it could be sold and the proceeds shared with the wife to achieve fairness and meet the housing needs of both the husband and the wife, and their children.

Cohabiting couples are not so well protected. The sharing of assets between couples who live together without marrying is currently still governed by the strict laws of property ownership and trusts. If no steps have been taken at the beginning or during the relationship to declare that a property should be shared, this can leave the person who is not the legal owner in the vulnerable position of leaving even a very long relationship with nothing to their name. They can face a long and costly case in the civil courts to try to prove that they have contributed to the property their partner owns, or that they had an unwritten verbal agreement that they would share it. Whether you are the partner who legally owns everything, or the one who owns nothing or, more often, somewhere in between, it will almost certainly be a worrying and stressful situation to resolve.

At David Gray Solicitors we can advise you how to how to enter into a Cohabitation Agreement at the start of your relationship to save you from much of the uncertainty of this situation should you later separate. Nicky Hunter is one of only two Resolution Accredited Specialists in Cohabitation in the North East. She has extensive experience in this area and advises in relation to Cohabitation Agreements, cohabitation disputes, and represents clients in court proceedings on separation when an agreement can’t be reached.

Nicky is a Collaborative Family Lawyer. “Collaborative family law can offer clients planning to live together a perfect way to explore all of the “what ifs” in a calm, constructive way and, at the other end of a relationship, it can keep parents talking about their future co-parenting relationship rather than ending up in court arguing about who paid for what. The collaborative process gives couples the opportunity to resolve their situation fairly without going to court, which can be of particular benefit to clients when the law as it stands can lead to unfair outcomes.”

If buying a house together is part of your plan Nicky will work together with our experienced property team so that you know how your property is owned when you buy it, and the options for sharing it if unfortunately you later separate.

For more information contact our family team.