I have never met a unicorn. I have seen many on the internet, but the images I have seen are always drawings, not photographs. I suspect that, as explained in the Unicorn Song sung by the Irish Rovers, the unicorn is in fact extinct. It has been romanticised recently, and has become a great source of merchandise for those making children’s toys, but it is after all, sadly just a myth.

The common law wife is just like the unicorn. Perhaps once upon a time in the dark ages the common law wife existed, but she does not anymore. Since I started in legal practice, more years ago than I care to admit, I have met many clients who told me that they were a common law wife. It is true that they did live and breathe, but they most certainly were not common law wives. I still have yet to meet one in the flesh.

It seems to be a general belief that if you are in a relationship with another person for a long time; you live in the same house with them; you bear their children; and you cook and wash and clean for them, then after a certain number of years (and nobody seems to know how many years), you metamorphose into a Common Law Wife. This mystical transformation then confers various (but not well-defined) financial rights and entitlements upon the new entity, similar to those a woman acquires when she signs the marriage register and becomes an ordinary wife. This mystical transformation is almost as good as a princess kissing an ugly frog, and finding that it miraculously turns into a handsome and eligible bachelor prince. A cohabitee, with absolutely no rights whatever, becomes (by passage of time alone) a wife without having to first go through an expensive wedding ceremony. What a revolution that would be!

Of course, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true, and that is precisely the case with our Common Law Wife’s tale. If marital rights could be acquired in this way, it would lead to chaos. Proving who is married is easy; you ask for a marriage certificate. If you have one, you have rights. Proving who is a common law wife would be a case by case analysis of how long one had lived with a partner, plus a detailed examination of the nature of the relationship and so on. There would be huge uncertainty. Courts would become even more backed-up with litigious couples than they are already.

You cannot have a society in which rights are acquired by osmosis. They have to be conferred by the law.

Kissing frogs is best avoided. Relying upon the myth of the common law wife to put a roof over your head and food on the table for you and the children, is not a very prudent financial strategy. Cohabitees are traditionally very exposed. Few rights; few safety nets. If you think you are a common law wife, I would suggest that you review your situation with a qualified family lawyer who can separate fact from fiction.

If you’d like more information about this or any other Family matter, please contact Elizabeth Hodder on 01284 763333 or email eah@gross.co.uk.

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