Inheritance law under review for unmarried couplesLaw Commission may change rules

30 October 2009

The Will papers

Writing a will is much simpler than you may think

The Law Commission has published proposals that may give some co-habiting couples automatic inheritance rights, should one partner pass away without leaving a will.

Currently, if you live with your partner but are not married or in a civil partnership, you will only stand to inherit some of the wealth they leave behind if this is specified in their will.

On the other hand, spouses are automatically entitled to the first £250,000 worth of their partner’s personal possessions when they die without making a will. This is called dying ‘intestate’.

Proposals to change inheritance rules

Under the Law Commission’s proposals, couples who have lived together for five years or more could be granted the same inheritance rights as married couples or those in civil partnerships.

Living with a partner for as little as two years could also entitle individuals to as much as half their remaining wealth, should they die intestate.

Furthermore, co-habiting couples with children would be treated in the same way as married couples under the proposals, irrespective of how long they had lived together. Where one partner died without leaving a will, the surviving partner would inherit their estate in just the same way as if the couple had been married.

‘Controversial’ will proposals

The Law Commission has admitted its proposals may cause some controversy. However, Professor Elizabeth Cooke, the Commissioner leading the review project, said: ‘When a family member dies, the process of grieving, and of adjustment to change, can be made far worse by uncertainty and anxiety about money or belongings.

It is vital that the law remains relevant and up to date, reflecting the reality of modern society and the reasonable expectations of those who have been bereaved.’

The Commission also points out that intestacy laws affect tens of thousands of people each year, leaving their property to be distributed according to legal rules that date back to 1925.

Which? and wills

Ian Robinson, wills expert at Which?, said: ‘The Law Commission’s proposals could signal welcome changes to intestacy rules. However, until the status of co-habiting couples changes under the law, those people who aren’t married or in civil partnerships will need to remain particularly wary of the consequences of not making a will. 

'What’s more, even if the Law Commission’s proposals come into force, not everyone will be happy for their estate to be distributed according to its framework.

'In order to ensure your wealth is left to the right people, it really is crucial to make a will – which will prevent intestacy rules from applying in the first place.’

You can find out more about how to make a will by reading the free, online Which? advice guide to wills. Which? Legal also has a will writing service – a straightforward, cost-effective alternative to using a solicitor.

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