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Proposed change to inheritance laws could see end to cohabitee claims

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Last week, the Government revealed proposed plans to change the inheritance rules, so that cohabiting couples may have the right to inherit from each other’s estates, if they die without making a Will.

The current rules, called the ‘intestacy rules’ provide that if you are married, or have a civil partnership, you may be able to inherit from your partner’s estate if they do not leave a Will.  However, there is no provision in the current rules for cohabitees to inherit.  This frequently leads to claims being brought by the surviving partner, for ‘reasonable financial provision’ from their partner’s estate.  These claims are brought under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, and can often take a long time, and a lot of money, to resolve.

The proposed reforms come just weeks after the Office for National Statistics announced figures that show that less than half of the adult population in England and Wales are now married, and the marriage rate has reduced significantly over the past 30 years.  It would appear that the modern way of cohabiting, rather than marrying, is preferred by many couples.  However, those couples do not always realise what could happen if one of them dies, and they have not made a Will.

Under the proposals, cohabitees would be entitled to a right to inherit something from the estate of their partner, providing that they have lived together, as man and wife, for a minimum of five years if there are no children, or for a minimum of two years, if they did have children.

Some critics have said that the proposals seek to ‘undermine the institution of marriage’.  However, I disagree.  Anyone who has cohabited as man and wife, for a minimum of two years, can already bring a claim under the Inheritance Act, for financial provisions.  The reforms just seek to avoid those claims being brought, and give clarity to couples who cohabit.

As a solicitor specialising in these kinds of claims, I frequently act for people who have no choice but to bring cohabitee claims against their partner’s estate.  Whilst the majority of these cases settle before a final trial, they still increase tension amongst families, and can take a long time, and a lot of legal costs, which could be avoided.  If the proposals are implemented, these claims may not need to be brought.

However, until these proposed reforms are made law, couples are still largely unprotected, and may still have to rely on a claim being issued, to have any provision from their partner’s estate.  It is important to seek legal advice quickly if you think that you may have a claim, as the time limits for bringing claims under the Act are very short. 

If you think you may have a claim against your partner’s estate, then contact our specialist litigation team who deal with Inheritance Disputes on 01616 966 229, or by email at consumer@stephensons.co.uk.  If you are of limited financial means, you may even be entitled to Legal Aid, and we can advise you of this quickly over the phone.  We also offer a range of other funding options, if you are not eligible.

I would also strongly advise people to make a Will, in particular if you are an unmarried couple.  For a relatively inexpensive amount now, it can save your estate hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, in the future.  If you wish to enquire about making a Will, please contact our probate team on 01616 966 229, or use our online enquiry form.

By contesting wills solicitor, Heather Korwin-Szymanowska