If you’re not married, draw up a no-nup

A cohabitation agreement - or 'no-nup' - gives you all the legal protection and peace of mind afforded to married couples. Merryn Somerset Webb explains.

Do you live with a partner to whom you are not married? Do you assume that if you have been together for a while your relationship counts as a common-law marriage? Do you think that sharing bill-paying with your partner gives you a stake in the assets that produce those bills?

If your answer to any of those questions is yes', look up the case of Pamela Curran. Curran, 55, began a relationship with her now ex-partner Brian Collins in the late 1970s. Between then and 2010, the two lived and worked together, moving in 2007 into a boarding kennels and cattery in Kent, then valued at £750,000.

When they split in 2010, Curran assumed she was entitled to a "fair share" of the property. Not so. Collins was registered as the sole owner, no business partnership had been established and she was in fact entitled to nothing. No share in the house or the business, and no maintenance of any kind.

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The truth is that while cohabiting rather than marrying has become increasingly common there is no such thing as a common-law partner. "The law does not recognise in any meaningful way a living together relationship outside marriage or civil partnership", as one lawyer told The Guardian.

So if you choose not to take on the legal protection offered by marriage, you really need to draw up a cohabitation agreement or no-nup' to define the rights, responsibilities and financial entitlements of your relationship.

What do you put in it? The main thing is the asset split (who gets what if you break up). But in financial terms it might also cover how you intend to support your children, what happens to assets if one partner dies, how you deal with joint purchases (holidays or cars, for example), whether one partner will be allowed to buy out the other on a split, and how you will pay your bills.

And, says The Daily Telegraph, you can put in any of the other things that "fuel countless relationship rows" perhaps who is to be in charge of childcare, or even rules governing visits to the other partner's family or household chores.

Finally, note that, legally, no-nups' have a different status to pre-nups'. The latter aren't binding in UK courts for the simple reason that, once you are married, a judge has the discretion to divide your assets as he sees fit. However, the former are, says The Guardian.

As long as both parties have had independent legal advice before signing, their no-nup will "have the full force of law" behind it.

You can download a ready-made agreement from Lawpack.co.uk, but if you want a bespoke agreement it will cost you £660 from Co-operative Legal Services, or anything up to £3,000 with a solicitor, depending on how complicated your affairs are.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.