Myth Busting One: Common law husband and wife?

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As a practitioner I can't put into words how frustrated I become when I constantly hear the phrase " I am his common law wife" whether that be by friends, strangers, on television or when I read it in publications.

Ask any family specialist what one of their top ten questions is and I am confident it will be – "…but I aren't I entitled to "X" as I am his common law wife?". It's a question I am regularly asked by new clients, who are separating and are not married. The shock on their faces and the fear in their eyes when I advise that they are not entitled to maintenance as they are not a common law wife, is always clearly evident.

The fact is that as a society, we seem to band around the phrase and use it regularly when the truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as a common law wife or husband. So why do we continue to use a phrase that has no legal status? I wish I knew the answer to that one. The doctrine of common law wives was abolished in 1753 by King George II.

The result of that means that no matter how long you may live with your partner, you will not gain any legal status or become their "common law wife" unless as Beyoncé would say….. "you put a ring on it!" and marry legally.

I felt the need to put pen to paper on this topic as last night when I was trying to obtain renewal quotes for our car insurance during the discussions with the provider (whom I shall not name and shame…. but is one of the bigger ones so I had expected more) I was asked what my marital status was. Fair enough, it's a standard question. I decided to test them and ask what their options were before responding. I was not surprised when they listed "common law wife". It had been a long day so I decided to educate the call operative and explained to him that there is no such thing as a common law wife and communicated that I felt it misleading to have an option that does not exist in the eyes of the law as all it does is add to the uncertainty for the general public. The operative was generally surprised and said he thought there was such a thing as could not understand why the company would use a term that is not legally recognised. I quickly informed him that his company was wrong, like many other insurance companies and I found it frustrating that despite people raising this issue in the past, insurance companies seem to ignore the issue and continue to have an option for status that is not recognised in law. I'm sure he thought I was mad or a difficult client but when he realised I was a Solicitor and enquired as to my area of specialism he was very sympathetic to my plight.

I came away from the call once again feeling disappointed that companies out there continue to add to the confusion that exists for the general public. I know I can't change the world but if I can educate just one person and spread the word then I am a happy soul.