The legal effect of long term relationships – Cohabitation interpretation

01 Feb 2017

When asked at a recent Comic Con about the future living arrangements of their characters, Amy and Sheldon on the hit TV series The Big Bang Theory, Jim Parsons (Sheldon) quipped “Right now, there is such a new world of living together and what that means, and working that out.” 21st Century relationships come in all shapes, forms and sizes, but what are the risks of being in a long-term relationship that is not formally recognised as a lawful marriage?

“At the outset it is important to stress that there is no such thing as a common law marriage or spouse”, says Shani van Niekerk, an Associate at Adams & Adams. “The amount of time that a couple lives together does not translate into a default marriage. We’ve had clients ask us about a “six-month rule”. It’s a total myth unfortunately.”

The consequence is that at the dissolution of the relationship, or in the event that a cohabitant dies without leaving a Will, partners are left very vulnerable and without the legislative protection which married individuals enjoy. For example, when a cohabitant dies without leaving a valid will, the partner has no right to inherit under the Intestate Succession Act. A cohabitant also cannot rely on the Maintenance of Surviving Spouses Act to secure maintenance should a partner pass away. There’s no legal obligation on either person to maintain the other – meaning no enforceable right to claim maintenance from each other.

So what can you do to protect your interests in a cohabitation relationship? Shani suggests taking a leaf out of Sheldon’s script. “The only way to be protected in our law is to enter into a cohabitation agreement. Such an agreement is in the best interests of both parties in a relationship and clarifies the expectations of the partners.”

A cohabitation agreement regulates the rights and duties between partners, and could almost be compared to an ante-nuptial contract in a civil marriage. The agreement can provide for the division and distribution of assets if the relationship ends, the rights and obligations towards each other with regards to maintenance, and parties’ obligations and respective financial contributions towards the joint home. A cohabitation agreement will be legally binding as long as it contains no provisions that are immoral or illegal, however it is important to note that a cohabitation agreement will not be enforceable insofar as third parties are concerned.

In a long-term relationship where marriage is not considered or possible, a cohabitation agreement is the smart way to live together without the fear of the future. Chatting to an experienced family law attorney and getting a cohabitation agreements drawn up may help you avoid the financial risks and potential trauma of a possible break-up.

See also: Is there such a thing as a ‘common law marriage’?

(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)
David Scheepers
David Scheepers

David Scheepers is a partner in the CPL department with over 20 years’ experience. His specialities lie in matrimonial disputes and family law, personal injury law, medical negligence actions and... Read more about David Scheepers

Shani van Niekerk
Shani van Niekerk

Shani van Niekerk is a senior associate in the CPL department. Her speciality and passion lie in matrimonial disputes and family law, inclusive of Domestic Violence and Harassment issues. Shani... Read more about Shani van Niekerk


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