Dear Karen,
My boyfriend and I have lived together for ten years and we have no children. We live in his house. If we split up, will I automatically get half of the house as his "common law wife"?

Most people think that once a couple have lived together for more than two years they become “common law husband or wife”. However, in English law there is no such thing. It is a myth.

Common law marriage is in fact a technical term which describes the highly unusual situation in which, because of extreme circumstances such as shipwreck or natural disaster, a couple are unable to go through the normal marriage ceremony but make as much effort to do so as they can, for example, exchanging vows. A common law marriage must take place abroad and can therefore never take place in England.

Accordingly, people who live together as man and wife without going through a ceremony of marriage acquire no special rights or duties in relation to each other. Marriage is the only relationship recognised by the English courts and therefore there is no guaranteed split awarded.

If you live in a property owned by your partner, as the non-owner you are usually entitled to nothing, no matter how long you have been living there although you may have acquired a right of occupation.

There are however some ways for people who are not married to acquire rights in property that legally belongs to their cohabitant.

For example, if there was a shared intention, particularly if there was an explicit statement of this at some stage or if you have done work on the property or given up something to live in the property.

This is however, a very complex area of law and you must always seek legal advice in the particular circumstances of your case.

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