What legal status do you have if your partner dies and you were unmarried?

Legal matters when you’re not married to a partner

The legal side of death is increasingly out of touch with the way a lot of us live. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of people who are in unmarried partnerships is rising, and only set to become “normal”. But the inheritance laws and tax systems around death mostly favour those couples that are married or are in a civil partnership. Here’s a look at what to expect if you weren’t married when your partner dies.

Cohabitation has no legal status

With a decline in the percentage of people who are married, there’s been a rise in couples who are living together without ever getting married (ONS, 2015). There are now more than 2.3 million unmarried couples in the UK; a figure which is set to rise to 4 million by 2033.

This is why the legal process surrounding death is outdated. As it stands, if you are unmarried and die without making sufficient provision for your partner in a Will then that person has no right to an inheritance from the estate. The only action a life-long partner can take is to go through a lengthy court process.

With the addition of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act of 1975, this gave anyone who thought they had good grounds to a stake in a person’s Will the right take up a claim through the courts.

If you were unmarried when a partner dies

However long an unmarried couple has been together, this kind of relationship is not recognised by law, even if you have children or grandchildren together.

When it comes to Probate, unmarried couples, even those in a long-term relationship, aren’t able to transfer their assets – such as savings or a property – to each other.

If your long-term partner doesn’t explicitly mention you in the will, or dies without a will, their assets will be at the whim of the State according to the laws of intestacy. Intestacy law prioritises spouses or civil partners, children and grandchildren. Read our article on intestacy here.

What if you owned a house together?

Whether or not you were married or in a civil partnership, any jointly-owned property will automatically pass to the surviving owner when the other dies.

If you were “tenants in common” and were unmarried, then your partner won’t automatically inherit your share. This means half the house could be inherited by someone else, such as a relative or any children. When it comes to property, the only way for you to make sure your half of a joint home goes to your partner is to name them as a beneficiary of your share in your Will.

Unmarried partners and inheritance tax

One of the biggest tax breaks available to married couple’s is inheritance tax; if you weren’t married or in a Civil Partnership, you’ll need to pay inheritance tax (if you qualify).

So if the value of a partner’s estate exceeds the current inheritance tax band of £325,000, there will be an inheritance tax bill of 40% on the amount above that £325,000. Read our simple guide to inheritance tax here.

Can an unmarried partner inherit a pension?

If you can spot a theme here, then you’ll be right – unmarried couples are not entitled to a partner’s state pension or their bereavement allowance. This is regardless of what’s stated in a will. So even if you’re named in a will as a life-long partner or beneficiary, this has no legal standing when it comes to passing on pensions and allowances.

What to do next

Make. A. Will. We don’t like to see tax systems inscribe a particular form of family life, so make sure you’re not penalised or put under undue stress. Just 26% of partners living together have a will, compared with 52% of married couples, so get writing.

Finally, make sure the will is valid. This means you need a couple of witnesses, and all the clauses need to comply with the general legal framework. This might be just a case of creating clear paragraphs, and getting the jargon down pat.

See our Legal Matters page for a look at will writing, whether you’re looking for a DIY Will or to get help from a law firm. 

Find out more

Planning ahead for death includes financial matters. Take a look at our Money Issues page for help on where to start.

Read our simple guide to inheritance tax here

Read our article on bereavement and money worries after a partner dies

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