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Last Updated: Monday, 6 December, 2004, 14:00 GMT
Moving in... and moving on
By Melissa Jackson
BBC News Magazine

Moving in with a partner is one of the most important decisions people ever make. So why do so many co-habiting couples sidestep the issue of drawing up a formal agreement about their finances?

You fall in love, set up home together and live happily ever after, right?

Well some fairytales have a happy ending, but they also have a nasty habit of ending in tears.

It's an issue, experts say, that people need to come to terms with if they are to avoid costly and bitter disputes in the event of a split.

Take for example the case of Sandra and Adam.

A sample of the Living Together Agreement. For full document, see Internet links.

They had been living together in rented accommodation for two years before deciding to buy a des res by the sea.

Sandra put down a 10,000 deposit and Adam, an architect, drew up plans to redevelop the property - a venture that he project-managed.

They lived in the property for five happy years until Adam dropped the bombshell that he had met someone else.

Sandra swiftly moved out and stayed with friends for the next 12 months.

She says: "We hadn't discussed how the furniture, crockery, cutlery, gardening equipment, cost of landscaping, curtains or even rugs would be divided.

"Everything stayed in the flat with Adam and I was so emotional, the last thing I wanted to do was go round and face him, start trying to negotiate or take legal action."

They eventually put the property on the market, but on the day of the sale, Adam declared he would not go through with it and insisted he wanted to keep the flat.

Legal rights

Sandra asked for half the asking price (less the money he'd been paying on the mortgage since they split up), but she never received it and finally settled for a sum that was less than half this amount.

She says: "The biggest issue is that if you haven't got any plans in place, you find yourself in a very emotional state and the last thing you're up to is any confrontation.

"I don't want other people to go through what I went through."

Co-habiting couples are often under the illusion that they have the same rights as married partners if they have lived with them for a long time.

The truth is that co-habitees are treated very differently from married partners in the event of a split, especially over property, but there is a simple solution to help divide up the assets more fairly in the event of a worst case scenario.

This isn't about breaking up, it's about securing and mapping out your future and your responsibilities in your relationship
David Mills, co-habitee
Britain's two million co-habiting couples are being urged to take stock and complete a living together agreement - a document which is being launched on Monday by AdviceNow - an organisation funded by the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

The 25-page agreement includes questions about individual earnings, who will pay for the children, who owns what and how household bills will be paid.

It's a bit like a pre-nuptial agreement and is already popular in the States.

It's not legally binding, but it could be brought up in any court proceedings.

Family lawyer Imogen Clout says: "In the event of a split, the court would probably uphold the agreement unless it was manifestly unfair, for instance, because the couple had not been honest with each other, or circumstances had changed in a way which had not been foreseen."

"Even if the agreement doesn't prove to be legally binding, it would be clear evidence of what you had discussed and agreed.

"Sometimes this is what the legal argument is all about."

Overcoming shyness

It can be given more legal weight by asking a solicitor to write it up as a "deed".

This would make it legally binding in the same way as any legal contract between two parties.

But these documents are not just about splitting up, they're a way of organising the day-to-day arrangements of living together and protect both parties from whatever might happen in the future, including the possibility of the death of a partner.

One young couple who are just about to buy their first property together think it is a sensible move.

David Mills and Emily Sollis
David Mills and Emily Sollis are planning ahead
David Mills and Emily Sollis, both 25, have been living together in rented accommodation for three years and are in the process of completing a living together agreement.

David says: "We have mapped out all our financial and social obligations and we think it will be of massive benefit to us in the long term.

"I could see that it would be difficult for some couples to broach the subject but not for us, we have always sat down and discussed things in the relationship.

"This isn't about breaking up, it's about securing and mapping out your future and your responsibilities in your relationship."

Sandra wishes she and Adam had signed an agreement.

She says: "With hindsight, it would have saved an awful lot of pain and heartache.

"Couples have got to overcome shyness and the stigma of talking about finances.

"The more people fill out these agreements, the more it will become the normal thing to do."

Some are calling for a change in the law, including the Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA) which wants a new cohabitation law, separate from matrimonial legislation.

But until that happens, many couples might well think that a Living Together agreement is something they should probably sign at the same time as exchanging contracts on that dream home.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

This is an excellent idea, but it doesn't take into account the feelings of the couple when they decide to cohabit. When myself and my current partner decided to cohabit a few years ago, I suggested a similar agreement, but she was vehemently against it, accusing me of not trusting that our relationship would last. If just one partner blocks the idea, seeing it as a lack of faith on the part of the other partner, then many couples are still not going to be able to take advantage of this scheme. Very few people are able to look at cohabiting with someone for the first time dispassionately.
Dan, Yorkshire

I think if you really need one of these you don't have trust in your relationship. I've been living with my partner for nearly 4 years now and I've always said (and she has too) that should we ever break up we will split everything in half fairly (even if we broke up in the worst circumstances possible!). Even if I've put more into the house and our belongings I would be completely fair and go 50/50.
Lee, Northampton, England

"This isn't about breaking up, it's about securing and mapping out your future and your responsibilities in your relationship." Great idea. But how is this different from a marriage certificate?
Idan, UK

Eighteen months ago my boyfriend and I bought a house and moved in together for the first time. The only way in which I was comfortable doing this, as he had owned property before so would be putting more money in than me, was to write down absolutely everything we each spent on the house. After a year (it was a brand new house, so lots of expenditure!), we sat down with a solicitor who drew up a deed detailing how much we each owned, the deal being that in the event of sale, the original investment should be repaid and the rest split equally. And we've never had an argument yet about money - which was precisely the point. We have no intention of breaking up, but there's no niggling worries - we both know exactly where we stand, and that it's fair.
Rebecca, UK

This is a must for couples living together. Me and my partner both live together in my property and over the past year have bought many fancy goods which if we split on bad circumstances I am all too aware that the ownership of possessions begins to rear its ugly head. We are fortunate that she has her own place - which we rent - but for couples who own the property together it is essential to have your own agreement down on paper while you are both on sensible moral terms. Because once the solicitors get involved it can just get down right nasty!
Mark M, Newcastle

My husband and I lived together for ten years before marrying and had a legal agreement from the word go, which was adjusted each time we moved house. Its a bit like doing a will .. you hope you won't need it, but should do it anyway for peace of mind on both sides.
Jan, London

I have a feeling that all this talk about commitment will put marriage firmly back on the agenda as an ideal. It's interesting that some people have the impression you can have a long term relationship with another human being whilst having no formal commitment. I think the wisdom of this position is now increasingly becoming questioned.
Mark, Scotland

After being taken to the cleaners by my ex wife I had an agreement drawn up before moving my new partner into my house. It certainly takes a weight off your mind and proves she is not a gold-digger.
Steve, Liverpool, England

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One woman's painful account of a messy break-up

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