Sam Dunn: 'Should I have a legal document before living with my boyfriend?'

House Doctor


Question: I'm eager to buy a flat with my boyfriend but, being fairly conservative, I am quietly worried about the implications of any future break-up and financial loss. Is there any kind of legal document we can sign that would set out our financial position? I have to admit, I'm terrified to raise the issue since it's going to make me appear grossly unsentimental.

JP, Solihull

Answer: Most mentions of love and legal documents tend to associate with painful memories: the rubble of a ruined romance and divorce, or sadness at dealing with a deceased partner's estate. Which will make it difficult to paint your attempt to be financially sensible as anything other than calculating and unromantic. This is a shame because your cool-headed approach is to be encouraged.

Convincing more couples to draw up a financial plan in advance would save untold sums in legal fees, as well as help curb emotional distress. More couples in England and Wales are choosing to live together without getting married – Office of National Statistics figures suggest the number of unmarried couples soared from 1.4 million in 1996 to 2.3 million in 2006.

"Many couples believe that they will automatically qualify for some protection under the law if their relationship breaks down," says a spokesman for online legal advice service Lawonthe web.co.uk.

"But the relationship with one another is not recognised as having any legal standing, and they have no special status in the eyes of the English legal system."

Worse, many discover this when it's far too late to rescue the situation and the relationship is finished: and this can be financially devastating.

Say you and your partner buy together but split up and he owns the home: without any agreement or legal understanding in place, you've no automatic right to stay if your ex then asks you to leave. Savings and other shared wealth such as cars or white goods would also be lost.

So what to do? Suggest a "Living Together" agreement to your partner, a quasi-legal document setting out financial obligations and how your assets might be disposed of in the event of a split; it also covers lighter "lifestyle" aspects, including budgeting together and who pays what bills.

As part of a campaign funded by the Government Ministry of Justice, the paper – easily downloaded from www.advicenow.org and click on the "Living Together" icon – is similar to a pre-nup. Although not legally binding, a court is more likely to uphold the agreement if you both take legal advice about the Living Together document; more solicitors are now aware of them.

Less formal than a legal document, it'll also give both of you a chance to look at your relationship's financial base without too much stress. And with a bit of luck, your boyfriend will welcome your move.

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