This piece first appeared in Reader's Digest in February 2001
 The text here may not be identical to the published text


In Sickness and in Debt

I know it’s February and Valentine’s Day is all about romance, love, passion, life-long commitment and even marriage. So you can call me an old spoilsport, but I want you to think for five minutes about the day these heady relationships come to an end. And before you say it is lifelong love, remember that the Government predicts four out of ten marriages will end in divorce and the rest will end when one partner dies. So at some point, one way or another, just about every relationship leaves one partner behind.

There are enough subjects to argue about without quarrelling over money as well. So a few steps now can make the rest of your life – together or apart – a lot less difficult.

One myth to put to bed first  – common-law marriage. There is no such thing, under English or Scots law, no matter how long or openly you live with someone. If you do not get legally married then the law will never treat you as if you are. And if it is a choice between marrying someone or living with them long-term, then marriage wins when it comes to financial security. That is especially important to women. Even in the 21st century it is women who earn less, stay at home more, and generally look after any children. So they are usually financially weaker when a relationship ends. Remember the Church of England marriage vow ‘with all my worldly goods I thee endow’? It’s the one that comes just after ‘with my body I thee worship’ so perhaps you were a bit distracted. But it pretty much means what it says.

The marital home

If you are married, both partners normally have a right to a share of the home they lived in and its contents whether they have contributed financially to it or not. When a marriage breaks down, a half share of the home is normally the starting point. A spouse who has been left – especially with children – may get it all. In Scotland, a husband or wife will hardly ever be forced to leave the marital home and will generally be entitled to half the property acquired since marriage.

An unmarried partner has no such security. Of course, if the home has been bought jointly, then they will have a legal right to their share of it. And here is a useful tip. Make sure you buy the home as ‘tenants in common’ not as ‘joint tenants’. That means you each own a specified share – normally 50% – which makes life a lot easier if you want to split the value. In Scotland that is the normal way to own a home.


An ex-spouse may be entitled to personal maintenance – a regular allowance to support them. That is quite separate from any maintenance paid for the children. An unmarried partner has no such right. And a divorcing spouse now has a right to a share of their spouse’s pension fund. That can be the biggest possession anyone owns, bigger often than the value of a home. Again, an unmarried partner has no such rights.

Claire Melzer, a partner with family lawyers Levison, Melzer, Piggott says "The bottom line is ‘get married’ especially if you're a woman. If you don’t, then draw up an agreement about who owns what and what happens if the relationship ends. If you had seen, as I have, a woman who had lived with a man for 20 years and had no entitlement to anything, it isn’t funny, still less romantic."

So if you think living together is somehow more romantic or modern than marriage, make sure there is something in writing that you are happy with, and get a lawyer to formalise it.

Widows and widowers get more financial protection from the law than live-in partners. If you die without a will your widow or widower will inherit – a lover will not. And a spouse will have the right to challenge a will if they or any children are not provided for – those rights are even stronger in Scotland. But unmarried partners have much weaker rights which are harder to exercise. So make a will – especially if you are not married.

Married or not

Married or not, living together will bring about a big change in your finances. When you start living with someone you soon realise the old saying that two can live as cheaply as one is not true – but what is true is that it is cheaper than two people living separately. For a start you have one house or flat. You may share a washing machine, a DVD player, even a car. And you buy them jointly, because being in love you own them equally. But that can be the introduction to one of the strangest concepts the banking world has come up with. It is called ‘joint and several liability’. And what it means is that as far as debts are concerned what’s hers is his and what’s his is hers. In other words you BOTH owe ALL the money.

Suppose you buy a TV and DVD player and it costs £1000. You take out a loan over two years and both of your sign on the dotted line – it only costs £24 a month each. Then, love being love and the century being the 21st, after a year one of you decides to move out and stops paying any of the joint bills, but takes the TV and DVD with them. Who has to pay the debt? The finance company can sue either of you for the whole amount – regardless of who actually has possession of the property. And if you are the one left behind, you are probably easier to find. Of course you have a separate legal claim against your ex-partner to recover half the money and possibly the property too. But that will require court action by you – and that could be too expensive, difficult, or just emotionally draining. And if your ex-partner has gone abroad, it may be impossible. So remember, joint debts are owed in full by both of you – married or not. One way out of this is for you to choose who buys what – take it in turns so that you know what is whose.

Similar considerations apply when it comes to joint bank accounts or credit cards. If you are both working and earning, it may be better to keep your own account and your own money and debts separate. And then have a joint account for household expenses such as council tax and the gas bill - you may even want to extend this to the weekly food shop. But it is going to make life much easier if you each have your own money in your own account and your own credit card, and you don’t have to explain every time you buy an expensive dress or a boxed set of ‘Friends’ DVDs.

Tax and benefits

As far as tax is concerned, marriage is now irrelevant. The extra allowance given to married couples – which was worth £197 a year – was abolished for anyone under 65 from April 2000. From April 2001 a new tax allowance is being introduced for anyone bringing up a child. It will be a straight deduction from your tax bill of £442 a year - £8.50 a week - regardless of how many children you have. But it will only be given in full to couples where both of them earn too little to pay higher rate tax – around £34,000 a year. And if either of them earns around £40,000 or more it will not be paid at all. Child benefit from the Benefits Agency is also paid to a parent – single or married – for each child. From April it rises to £15.50 for the first child and £10.35 for each other.

February 2001

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