No such thing as a ‘common law spouse’

    The London County Central Court, is currently hearing the case of Joy Williams, who has launched legal action after her partner’s share of their property passed to his estranged wife.

    The matter serves as a frank warning to unmarried couples to consider their legal position properly.


    Joy Williams and Norman Martin lived together for eighteen years. Norman had been married once before, and he remained married to his first wife, despite being in a serious and long-term relationship with Joy.

    The pair of them owned a property together. In 2012, Norman died of a heart attack. Upon his death, however, his share in the property passed to his estranged wife and not to Joy.

    Legal issues

    Joy and Norman’s case demonstrates potential issues facing cohabitees who do not put proper legal arrangements in place. The case also highlights potential issues regarding how people can own a property together.

    Ownership of the property

    Joy and Norman owned their property as ‘tenants-in-common’. There are two ways in which people can own a property together: tenants-in-common or joint tenants. There are significant differences between the two:

    • Joint tenants: you have equal rights to the whole of the property. This means that you both technically own the full share of the property. It is not possible to pass on ownership of a ‘share’ of the property to someone else, and upon death of one owner, the property automatically passes to the other owner.
    • Tenants-in-common: it is possible to own different shares of the property. Thus neither owner owns the full property. It is possible to pass on your share of the property in your will, and upon the death of one owner the property does not automatically go to the other owner.

    Norman had not divorced his first wife and he had not updated his will to reflect his relationship with Joy. This meant that, as a tenant-in-common, he owned a share in the property, and it was passed to his estranged wife and not to Joy.

    Common law spouses

    Couples who cohabit do not have the same rights as married couples or couples in a civil partnership.

    This is often forgotten in the romance of moving in together. Sadly, it takes cases like this to remind cohabiting couples that there is no such thing as a common law spouse.

    So, what should cohabitees do to protect themselves legally?

    • Consider entering a cohabitation agreement. A cohabitation agreement is a legally binding document that sets out how the parties intend the property to be owned. The agreement could also cover the payment of household bills and what should happen in the event the couple separate.
    • Make or amend a will to reflect your current relationship status – cohabitees do not feature in the order of inheritance should one of you die intestate.

    What will happen to Joy?

    The case is expected to be heard on Thursday 11 February 2016. We will report back with the outcome of the case once the judgment has been released.

    Update 03/11/2016: Joy won the legal battle in February. Read more here