Julian Knight: Let's recognise the 'specialness' of the live-in partner

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The Independent Online

It's a difficult one Should people who are cohabiting have the right to claim the estates of their loved ones when they die in the same way bereaved spouses or civil partners do? The UK Law Commission says yes. But others say that if the cohabitees had meant their partners to have a share of their wealth they would have either got married or written a will. Dig deeper and the argument becomes one about protecting the "specialness" of marriage.

There is an anomaly here, though. The laws on intestacy – what happens when someone dies without a will – date back to the 1920s, a time when cohabitation was, in the eyes of the middle classes, akin to running a brothel. Fortunately, we live in more liberal times, and while I do think that marriage (and civil partnerships) should be encouraged through the tax system, it's a strange sort of morality that can watch someone who was clearly precious to the deceased go without – and often suffer huge hardship – all for the supposed greater good. If you're living with someone, think about who is more important in your life – the person you wake up with each morning or some cousin you may see once in a blue moon? Because under intestacy law, it's your cousin who has a chance of inheriting while your dearest doesn't.

What's more, anyone who has had an unmarried partner dangerously ill or die knows that, from the moment they get involved in anything bureaucratic or healthcare-related, their rights are zilch compared with the blood relatives'. For instance, and I speak from personal experience, even if the stricken individual actually had nothing to do with the family, they get to dictate who visits the bedside; the partner is there on sufferance. Put simply, in our society we don't properly recognise the "specialness" of committing to live together. Amending the intestacy laws would be a start to correcting this.

For me, the best approach would be to allow live-in partners a portion of the estate under reformed intestacy laws, but at the same time encourage far more people to make a will. Turn the whole argument around; say to people, if you don't want your live-in partner to inherit then make a will. (Although, if you don't want them to inherit what are you doing with them?)

Generally, people don't make a will because they are intimidated by the cost, the legal language and their own mortality. More people would be happier making a will if the industry were visibly regulated rather than having the Law Society governing solicitors and no one overlooking the will-writing firms, some of which employ tactics that even dodgy commission salespeople in the financial-services industry would baulk at. Most of this is solvable with a bit of clear thinking, but if you're living with someone and don't have a will, why not take advantage of Will Aid month starting today (see page 91) where you can get a will drawn up for a fraction of the normal cost.

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