Financial and legal consequences upon separation in England

Lucy Greenwood, Partner at The International Family Law Group LLP (IFLG) sets out some of significant and commonly misunderstood differences in the financial legal rights of married and unmarried couples.

For these purposes, the term married couples includes couples in Civil Partnerships.


Whether you, your clients, or family members are already married, cohabiting or contemplating how to move forward with a relationship, it is sensible to know what might happen in the event of relationship break down and the legal consequences if you were to separate in England.

There is of course a lot more to know than we are able to set out here (each couple’s circumstances are unique). Consequently this short article serves only as a preliminary guide.

There remain many myths surrounding the rights of cohabitees in England. There is no such thing as “de facto marriage” or “common law marriage” for unmarried couples in England. This still comes as shocking news to many cohabiting couples.

It can also mean that those cohabitees living in a country where they have enjoyed legal rights akin to married couples could lose those rights and legal protections if they move to another (e.g. England). Conversely, moving from England to a country which has de facto marriage might grant a cohabitee greater legal rights than before (e.g., Australia recognizes “de facto marriage”).

The court’s jurisdiction in England only extends to England and Wales. Other parts of the UK, including Scotland and Ireland have different laws. If you or your partner have strong connections (by nationality or residence) to countries outside England and Wales then independent legal advice from a specialist family lawyer practicing in that part of the UK or the relevant country should be sought.

The following table lists some of the differences in rights between married and cohabiting couples:

We can see from this list that there are considerable disparities between the rights of married/civil partnership and unmarried couples and those rights can also change if couples move abroad.

Pre-nuptial or post-nuptial and cohabitation agreements can provide protection to curtail significantly the potential financial risks associated with divorce in England and potentially abroad for a financially stronger spouse.

Separation agreements or cohabitation agreements can also help to regulate and thus control and plan what happens if unmarried couples separate.

If you or your clients, family or friends have any specific concerns there is no substitute for seeking independent legal advice from a family law specialist. If after reading this article you want to ask any questions, please contact Lucy Greenwood on or by visiting The International Family Law Group LLP’s website at

The contents of this article are for reference purposes only. They do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such. Legal advice should always be sought for your specific circumstance.

Supplied by Lucy Greenwood at The International Family Law Group LLP