UK: The Common Law Wife & Other Myths

Last Updated: 8 October 2001

Twenty years ago Mark was happily married with three young girls, aged 3, 2 and 6 months. He arrived home from work one day at 6pm to find crying children and his young wife lying dead on the floor of the kitchen. She had a rare and serious heart defect. Mark was grief stricken and dazed. He tried to cope with nappies, bottles and baby-sitters, but his work and health were suffering. Sensibly, he hired a young and enthusiastic nanny called Sally.

Gradually, with the assistance of his friends, family and a very capable nanny, he began to recover from his shock and grief. The three young girls took to Sally quickly and soon she was the only mother they could remember. Counting on Sally’s devotion to the children and her other domestic skills, Mark was able to throw himself back into his work in the City as an investment banker.

Along the way Mark and Sally began sleeping together. At one point Sally became pregnant but unfortunately miscarried. Mark made it clear that he felt three children was enough so Sally took contraceptive precautions, although she would have very much liked a child of her own. The day to day routine and work with the three girls was time consuming. Her bond with them was loving and strong. She loved Mark and she felt fulfilled.

Mark’s work continued to be lucrative and his bonuses allowed them a high standard of living. By last year they were living in a £1.5m house, the girls were at good private schools and they had expensive ski holidays twice a year.

Last year Sally’s world fell apart. Mark came home late on Valentines Day to announce he was in love with Trisha, one of Sally’s friends. He asked Sally to vacate the house as he no longer required her service as nanny/housekeeper.

When Sally attended at her solicitor’s office she was stunned and in a state of shock. How could he seek to discard her like this after 20 years? Surely she must have some rights as a common law wife? The solicitor had to explain gently that there is no such thing. The solicitor discovered that Mark had never discontinued the standing order for £250 per month he set up 20 years ago when Sally was engaged as a nanny. Sally had used this as pocket money all these years. Mark made it clear that he was prepared to fight any claim she would make and would deny the intimate relationship. He pointed to the "wages" he paid her and claimed she was an employee.

At the age of 45, Sally had no assets, income, or career and few prospects. She was unable to have more children. Had Sally been married, she could have sought maintenance for herself and the children. She would have been housed. She would have been entitled to a share, possibly an equal share, of the family assets. She would have been entitled to share in Mark’s large pension fund. As it was, as a cohabitee without any marital rights, Sally faced a bleak and poor future. With help from her solicitor and pressure from mutual friends and the children, Sally was able to reach an agreement with Mark for a small monthly income of £700. It was not enough for Sally to live on comfortably, but at least she had a roof over her head and enough money to buy some food. She had to take a job working in a pub at weekends to supplement her income.

If Sally had been married to Mark, she could have left the marriage with over £1m. As it was she very nearly left a 20 year relationship with nothing. She was very fortunate in the help she had from her solicitor and the children to gain something. Currently Mark lives with Trisha in their large property and Trisha is receiving, in addition to financial support from Mark, a nice financial settlement from her own husband.

Whilst the facts have been changed to protect identities, this is based on a true story. It is not uncommon. I have seen clients, both men and women, who have lost six figure sums because they thought they had a common law status.

If you visit your GP or "well person" clinic regularly for health checks, then why not visit your solicitor for a "rights check"? Clients often avoid going to solicitors because they do not want to confront distasteful matters such as death, divorce and relationship breakdowns. Remember legal advice can inform your decisions in the future. As a solicitor I would rather help people before there is a major problem to protect themselves rather than try to pick up the pieces when everything falls apart.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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