Cohabiting Couples

What Are My Rights in a Common Law Relationship?

There are a lot of misconceptions about ‘Common Law Marriage’. No matter how long cohabiting couples* live together as husband and wife, they’ll never secure the full rights and entitlements of marriage. Certain limited rights and obligations do arise, but they’re not the same as those granted to married couples. The bottom line is that Common Law marriage is not legally recognised in Ireland. However, unmarried or cohabiting couples do have a recognised legal status here.

What Rights Do Cohabiting Couples Have In Ireland?

The rights of cohabiting couples are set out in the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act of 2010.  Under this act, cohabiting couples are defined as opposite or same sex adults who are living together in an intimate and committed relationship. They are further defined as being not married to each other or in a registered civil partnership.

These cohabiting couples are granted rights in areas like inheritance, maintenance, property, guardianship of children and adoption.

However, they may need to fulfil certain conditions to qualify fully for some of these rights. For example, in financial matters, such as maintenance, a couple must have lived together for a set period. If they have children, then they need to have lived together for 2 years. If they don’t have children, then it’s 5 years. You will also need to prove that you are financially dependent upon your partner.

It’s a good idea to make a Cohabitants’ Agreement with your partner to provide for the financial arrangements if the relationship were to break up. Each partner must have independent legal advice for this agreement to be valid. You can also choose to opt out of the effect of the law in this area, and can do this following specific legal advice.

What Property Rights Do Cohabiting Couples Have?

You may be thinking about buying a property or home with a partner, but you do not intend to marry. If so, then you should seek advice well before the purchase to protect each of you, should the relationship end.

Use this advice to create the right structure for owning your home jointly. You can also create a Shared Ownership Agreement. These steps can help you avoid unnecessary conflict and cost in the future.

When Cohabiting Couples Face Separation or Divorce

There is a special Redress Scheme for Cohabiting Couples who split up, which was created under the Civil Partnership and Cohabitants Act This scheme provides for the same kinds of court orders that married couples can get when they separate or divorce. Orders can cover areas like custody, the family home, and maintenance.

When married or cohabiting couples split up, the family home still belongs to the person who holds the legal title to it. This means that in the case of the family home, the person who originally bought the house and whose name is on the title deeds will usually own the house legally.

If you are a co-habitee you may be able to establish some ownership rights to the house, if you meet certain conditions.  For example, did you contribute to the purchase price or the mortgage, or can you satisfy certain dependency conditions? If so, then you can seek a Property Adjustment Order under the special Redress Scheme.

By contrast, married couples have greater equality of interest in a family home, regardless of whether the property is legally registered to only one of them.

Cohabiting Couples Rights as Parents

The rights of the children of cohabiting parents are secure and are no different to those living with married parents. However, it’s a little different for parents, particularly fathers. All married parents automatically become legal guardians of their child when they are born. The same is not true for an unmarried father.

However, an unmarried father will automatically be the guardian of his child if he can satisfy a cohabitation period. He needs to have lived with the child’s mother for at least 12 consecutive months including at least than 3 months after the child’s birth. He could also sign a Statutory Declaration to give him Joint Guardianship with the mother by agreement.

Alternatively, he can apply to court to become a legal guardian, whether his name is on his child’s birth certificate or not. Read more about Guardianship and Cohabitation here.

If you need advice or support on any of the issues raised above, please call call Alan Finnerty on 01 637 6200 or email him at

Useful Links

Citizens Information: Rights of cohabiting couples – click here

Legal Aid Board: Rights of Cohabitants – Click here

*In contentious business, a solicitor may not calculate fees or other charges as a percentage or proportion of any award or settlement.

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