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26 January 2015

Legal advice for single parents

Today, around half of all children in the UK are either born to single parents or couples who live together, but are not married or in a civil partnership. Fran Hipperson, senior associate in the family law practice at Buckinghamshire legal firm B P Collins LLP, says in such circumstances, many mums and dads don’t realise just how little financial and legal protection they could receive in the event of a family break-up.

There’s little doubt that the face of the family in the 2010s is evolving, but the reality is that the law has not reacted in terms of protecting the rights of unmarried parents who are left “holding the baby”.

The common-law myth

Many couples still believe that if they live together for a certain period of time – five years is often quoted – they will have some sort of claim over their partner’s estate if they split up.

This is simply not the case and, when children are involved, it can potentially leave the parent who has responsibility for the children without a roof over their head and unable to claim any form of financial support from an ex-partner, apart from maintenance for the children. In some cases provision for housing can be sought, but this would be held on trust.

If you’ve given up a job to be a stay-at-home mum or dad, that can come as a nasty shock.

Contrast this with a married couple, where a court has discretion to divide the family's assets fairly, including the family home, pensions and savings, and often award spousal maintenance, as well as child maintenance.

The harsh reality is that when dealing with the assets and income of unmarried couples, the UK courts have very limited powers and have to follow extremely restrictive legislation, principally dealing with the division of any jointly-owned property and provision for any children.

The working parent has no legal obligation to provide financial support for the other parent, even if they are unable to work because of childcare responsibilities. The only exception may be if he or she is a very high earner, in which case a claim could be made for additional maintenance to include what is known as a carer's allowance.

What’s the solution?

If you’re not keen to get married, but you want to live with your partner and raise a family together, then the best answer is to draw up a formal co-habitation agreement.

Think about any issues that are likely to arise, such as:

  • if the property is going to be in joint names
  • who is providing the lion’s share of the money for the property (rental or buying)
  • who pays the bills
  • what will happen financially if one partner gives up work to look after any children
  • whether you would consider mediation if the relationship runs into problems
  • what happens to the family home if the relationship end

This might sound “unromantic” but without the protection of the law that applies to married couples or civil partnerships, it is sensible to make the best provisions that you can in advance.

Strictly single parents

Of course, not everyone raising a child chooses to be in a relationship, so it’s important to know that you still have the same rights to claim financial provision for any children. Take advice on what is appropriate in these circumstances.

Contact arrangements

If a relationship has broken down, then whether married, co-habiting or single – one thing does stay the same, and that’s the legal rights of the child to spend time with both parents.

The parent with whom the child does not live most of the time must pay child maintenance and, if contact arrangements are not agreed so he or she can continue to be a part of their child’s life, then that parent is entitled to make an application to court.

Building a positive future

No matter how difficult it might seem, try not to involve children in the issues and always remain positive about the other parent in front of the children.

Having children together means you are likely to have some form of contact with your former partner for the rest of your lives, so remember that you did once love each other.

Staying respectful and keeping the communication channels open can go a long way in helping create a safe and secure environment for your child to grow up in – which is surely best for everyone.

For expert legal advice on legal rights for single parents, please contact the family practice at B P Collins LLP on 01753 279091 or email familylaw@bpcollins.co.uk

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