If you are living woman to man, man to woman, woman to woman or man to man or whatever else takes your fancy, watch your step in so far as probate goes. For if you are not formally married – or have a registered civil partnership – and one of you dies without a will the other could inherit nothing.
That’s because the law does not recognise ‘common law marriages’ in Wales and England, no matter how much your family and your neighbours love your relationship to bits. The law may be cruel and nasty, but the law still reigns supreme.
Therefore, if you love each other you should marry, register a civil partnership, or leave everything to each other in legal wills. There is no middle ground, and you kid yourself if you think there is.
What the Law Says When Someone Dies Without a Will
If a person passes on without a legally valid will, then lawyers say they died ‘in intestacy’. The closest our dictionary comes to explaining the term is they died without a last will and testament. If this happens in England and Wales, then the laws of inheritance kick in.
It does not matter a fig what the family and neighbours think, or what promises the partners made to their lovers. The law takes a step back and retrofits the days when the mediaeval church was in charge of such matters.
The Rights of Unmarried / Unregistered Partners
They have no rights, because the laws of intestacy make no provision for them. A surviving partner outside a marriage – or registered civil partnership – does not automatically inherit possessions which were in the sole name of their late partner. However, they may be able to make an inheritance claim. The deceased’s family may also legally vary the distribution of the assets under law.
What the Intestacy Rules Say in England and Wales
England and Wales have enjoyed (if that’s the right word) identical rules for succession since 1925. However, the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act of 1975 does allow extra protection for married spouses and dependents where the former would produce an unfair result. Other than that, these are the headline rules of inheritance in an intestate estate.
# An estate worth less than £250,000 passes entirely to the deceased partner’s married spouse, or their registered civil partner. If not, then their children collect
# If the estate is worth more than £250,000, then the rest of the family may also have entitlements, but that’s another story for another day.
What Intestacy Law Means for People in Love
More marriages seem to end in divorce than endure these days. Marriage is gradually falling out of fashion as the established church loses its grip. Many couples live proudly outside marriage in England and Wales, because they believe their love binds them tighter together.
That’s absolutely fine provided they register civil partnerships, or leave rock-solid wills in favour of each other. For if they do neither, then there’s a risk. Someone else could grab half the wealth they accumulated together as a team, when they were living together.