Joy Williams, a 69-year-old from Dorchester, lived with Norman Martin for 18 years, in a three-bedroom property that they owned between them. However, when Norman died in 2012, it emerged that she wouldn't be getting his share of the house - it would pass to the woman he never got around to divorcing, 73-year-old Maureen Martin.
It seems bizarre, but there were four issues stopping Joy from inheriting. First, they owned the house as tenants-in-common, which means one owner doesn't automatically receive the other half of the house when the other dies. Second, Norman never divorced his wife, so technically it was an asset of his marriage and ought to pass to his wife. Third, he never updated his will after separating from his wife, or setting up home with Joy, so he made no specific bequest to Joy. And finally, although the couple lived together for 18 years, the fact that they never married meant she received no automatic inheritance from his estate.
Joy was left without ownership of her own home and without his financial support, so she was forced to go to court. The judge ruled that she was entitled to make a claim for the house. Maureen was ordered to pay £100,000 in court costs within 42 days, which her lawyer said she could not afford. Maureen's daughter said they would appeal the decision.
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However, she added: "What has been traumatic for me is that this level of serious relationship is not currently recognised by the law." "I hope my situation raises awareness for others to consider their own financial position in relation to their partner and consider whether they need to take advice to protect their each other in future."
Her lawyers at Irwin Mitchell warned that the boom in unmarried couples living together means this will be a growing trend. There are now 6.5 million cohabiting couples in the UK, twice the number than almost 20 years ago. It's the fastest growing family type in the UK - particularly among those aged 40 and over. It means millions of people are vulnerable to inheritance problems.
Pula Myers, National Head of Wills, Trust and Estates Dispute team at Irwin Mitchell, said: "This case highlights the need for co-habitation laws to be brought into the 21st century. There is no such thing as a common law husband or wife and couples who live together do not automatically have the same rights as a married couple or those in a civil partnership."
She says it's essential to protect yourself, explaining: "Unmarried couples who live together should have co-habitation agreements in place outlining who owns property and how bills are divided. People should also ensure that their wills are up to date and reflect their wishes, particularly if their circumstances or relationships change."
Mark Edwards, General Manager at www.rocketlawyer.co.uk agrees: "Couples do split up, so it may sound official, but without this type of agreement, all sorts of disputes, misunderstandings and arguments can happen, even between the closest of couples."