Focus: The good split guide: how to break up and not break down

Do cohabitees really need a government checklist on how to part? Absolutely, discovers Lucy Bulmer - more than ever
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Isn't it funny how, when a crisis hits, you can never remember where you saw that handy government brochure telling you exactly what to do. There have been plenty of them over the years - from the 1980s Protect and Survive pamphlet telling us how to build a nuclear fallout room to more recent advice on what to eat and how often to go for a run.

So what's next? Last week saw the launch of a partly government-funded internet guide on what to do if you break up with your partner. Aimed at couples who were living together but never married, it is full of advice about finances, your home and the children. So why do we really need this? Can't people sort out their own affairs?

Not according to thousands of long-term "living-togethers" who have found that breaking up leaves them high and dry with no legal or financial rights over their home or their children. And not according to the legal adviser Mary Webber, who wrote the guide on www .advicenow.org.uk.

"There's a massive amount of misinformation about what your rights are," she explains. "A recent poll of our advice centres showed that 67 per cent of people believe in the myth that when you've been living together for a while you get common law rights. In fact, a common law husband or wife simply doesn't exist in law."

This means that if you're the one who has done all the domestic stuff while your partner earned the money, without a marriage certificate you have absolutely no right to any kind of financial settlement. With more couples choosing to cohabit rather than marry, it is a situation that has caused chaos and misery for thousands. The need for the checklist grew simply out of people asking for it.

"We got the message again and again from our advice centres," says Ms Webber. "People didn't know the legal situation, and were amazed to discover they had no rights."

People like Pauline, who cut up her credit cards, having agreed that her partner would take over the joint bank account, only to find that he hadn't taken her name off the account and she was liable for any debts he ran up. "Apparently, unless you're the first-named person on the account, you can't ask to be taken off it," she says. Or Phil, who loved his children and shared in their upbringing, but was horrified to discover when he and his partner broke up that he had no parental rights over them.

"My solicitor told me I'd have to go to court to get parental responsibility before I could fight for access because I wasn't married to their mother - and it was likely to cost at least £15,000.

"I had no legal rights over my own flesh and blood. My ex-partner could take them out of the country and I couldn't stop her." This law has since been changed, and unmarried fathers named on the birth certificate now have automatic parental responsibility for children born after December 2003.

The agony aunt Virginia Ironside welcomes the checklist. "I wish I'd had a checklist like this when I was a cohabitee and we broke up," she says. "There are no lawyers to tell you anything, you don't know what to expect and it's not easy to find out. You have a vague idea that it's half and half, but it's not like that at all. I had no idea how unprotected both my partner and myself were."

The Law Commission is currently considering a review of the law on the rights of cohabiting people, which could change everything. It is due to report to the Government in 2007 on proposals to give cohabitees many of the same rights as married couples. But change is controversial, particularly with groups who believe it undermines marriage. And it may never pass into law.

According to the Relate counsellor Denise Knowles, "living togethers" are already wising up about how to protect themselves. "People are getting more savvy as these cases become more common, but a checklist like this is a good idea: it gives people the opportunity to discuss practical issues which often look straightforward on the surface, but become very complex when you add in the emotional content," she says.

"I like the way that the section on children advises couples to try to sort it out themselves without involving the courts, because that's when it gets really hard."

Louisa Cross, a spokesperson for the family law campaign group Resolution, welcomes the checklist but thinks it's unlikely to be enough. "It's like anything: you see the advice on protecting yourself, think you'll get round to it one day and then find it's too late. There needs to be a legal framework to protect the financially vulnerable in these break-ups - some facility for courts to consider the nature of the relationship," she says.

"The way the law stands at the moment, it's important to remember no matter how long you live together, you don't acquire rights and the law won't protect you at all."

Angela's story: 'When my partner left I found I had no right to my own home'

Angela, 54, from Cheltenham, thought she and her partner had been careful with their finances, but she'd missed one important detail.

"My partner and I were together for 20 happy years - we had a lovely life and rarely argued. I'm a teacher, but in the early years I earned more than him. When we bought our first property together I provided most of the capital. I also helped him get his business off the ground. It now makes him almost £100,000 a year.

"He always said our money was ours together. We had joint bank accounts and had made wills and pensions leaving everything to each other - what could go wrong?

"But then last year, like a bolt out of the blue, he announced that he was moving out to live nearer to his business - 50 miles away. So we rented a flat near his office and I helped him move in. A couple of days later I went over to see him unexpectedly. I saw two dressing gowns, two toothbrushes and some jewellery by the bed. It was clear he was living with another woman. He admitted he was leaving me.

"I assumed I'd get half of everything, and to begin with he was very generous. We met and sorted out all the financial arrangements. We agreed to sell our home and split the proceeds. Then he said that he'd changed his mind and I should see a solicitor.

"I assumed I would at least have rights to half our property. Then a letter from his solicitor informed me that my name wasn't on the deeds. It was on the mortgage, which I'd paid half of, so I assumed I was safe. But I was really stupid - my partner had handled the finances and I trusted him completely. Now he was going to sell and take all the money. After 20 years I would be left with nothing.

"He'd taken the paperwork with him, including our chequebook, so I don't even have access to our joint funds. I can't get another chequebook because my name is second on the account. Things are tight. For the moment he is paying the bills and his share of the mortgage - but for how long?

"Even if I went to court, I have absolutely no rights. It's so wrong - when you've made a commitment in terms of a jointly owned home, bank account and everything, a co-habiting arrangement is the same as marriage on moral terms. And the need for justice is exactly the same."

Advice from the ministry: how to survive

The home

The list advises on how to make sure you will still have a roof over your head and reminds you to think about the detail: "What will you do about all your stuff - stuff you may have bought together?"

Children

It covers protecting children from your break-up: "It's a good idea to tell your children's teachers the new situation. They need to understand what is happening as the situation at home may make a difference to your child's behaviour in the short term."

Debts

How to make sure you're not dumped with your partner's wayward spending habits: "Legally, if the debt is in your name, you and you alone are responsible for paying it off. It doesn't matter who spent the money in the first place."

Joint accounts

Be sure you're not suddenly cut off from access to joint funds: "Some banks will only take instruction from the 'main account holder' which is simply the person whose name was put first on the form that opened the account."

Your will

You may have agreed on it while still together and happy, but you can always change your mind: "If you have a will which leaves all your worldly possessions to your ex-partner and you no longer want this to happen, remember to destroy the will."

Comments