Leave your toothbrush in my bathroom I'd better call my lawyer first
Forget pre-nups, now women are demanding 'cohabitation contracts' before their lovers even move in
23:54 GMT, 21 March 2012
For better, for worse. The words rang in my ears as my boyfriend Will and I sat down to hammer out the details of how we would begin our life together.
In the old days, of course, he would be proposing. But romantic matters are rarely so simple for baggage-laden 40-somethings. The discussion started light-heartedly enough, with a debate about the pros and cons of marriage, and the risks involved in merging our affairs just four months into our relationship.
Call me a cynic, but as much as I have fallen head over heels in love with this wonderful man, I cannot bring myself to think about marriage. After a very bad break-up in my late 30s, I have been left feeling horribly distrustful. But I don’t want to shut the door on someone who might just be The One, either.
Set it in stone: It might not be romantic, but a cohabitation contract makes financial sense for many couples who want to live together but remain unmarried
With this in mind, we began an even more complex discussion about how we would manage a life together if we didn’t marry. Whose house would we live in His, mine, or a new one
Luckily, we both live in South-West London. But we also both long to move to the country. If we decide to start a new life in our dream cottage in Surrey, would we buy it, or rent it Would we retain our own properties as boltholes Who would be responsible for the rent or mortgage if we broke up How would we decide whether one might make a claim on the other after a long period of cohabitation
And how was any of this less risky than marriage, when you came down to it
In desperation, I opened my laptop and googled the words ‘cohabitation agreement’. I didn’t expect anything to come up, but to my amazement there were dozens of sites advertising legal packs to help couples like us.
It turns out that for between 300 and 1,000 we can draw up a legally binding contract setting out who owns what of our property — even down to future gifts, pets or children.
I know these pragmatic — even clinical — discussions hardly seem like a fairy-tale happy ending.
When I was little, it never occurred to me that when I grew up I would meet a handsome prince, sign a cohabitation agreement and live happily ever after (or, alternatively, split up amicably and not make a claim on each other’s assets).
'Like many other women in their 40s who
still harbour dreams of marrying, I have reached a stage where it feels
like I have too much to lose to do so'
I wanted the real deal, like every other girl. The handsome prince would go down on one knee and we would walk off into the sunset. But like an increasing number of women, I threw all my energy into my career and the right man didn’t come along.
So I find myself 40 years old, with a ton of emotional and financial baggage, meeting men in their late 30s and 40s with baggage of their own.
Together, we have enough to fill a lost luggage centre. Like other single women of my generation, I bought my own home, which has rocketed in value. I have a few other assets — nothing flash, but the product of my own labour.
I love my animals — my two horses, my new spaniel puppy, Cydney — but I do not have children. I would have liked them, but it just never happened. This leaves me anxious that in the event of a separation, I would not have the financial protection mothers enjoy.
With no dependants, I worry that I could be the subject of a claim by an ex, demanding that I pay for his keep, or give him half the value of my home.
Whenever my boyfriend — who is a little younger than me at 36 — helps me put up a shelf at home, I confess that a little voice in the back of my mind wonders whether home improvements constitute something legally binding.
I get worried when he leaves a toothbrush in my bathroom, or a pair of socks in a drawer, because land and property law is so ambiguous about the point at which someone has a claim on you after living in your house.
If I sound paranoid, I admit that I am. I am more risk-averse than ever, and less willing by the year to walk off into the sunset with anyone other than a man who has precisely the same amount of money as me and who has promised — in writing — not to take a penny from me if we break up.
Who keeps the dog Cohabitation contracts mean couples can decide who gets pets and furniture should the worst happen (posed by models)
Like many other women in their 40s who still harbour dreams of marrying, I have reached a stage where it feels like I have too much to lose to do so.
Pre-nups are still in their infancy and not yet legally binding, although the courts are beginning to honour them. Living together somehow seems safer — but is it
There are horror stories nearly every week of men demanding enormous settlements from their ex-wives. Of course, in the days when girls married in their 20s, they had everything to gain and nothing to lose. Before women had careers, a good marriage used to be the making of them.
For today’s independent woman, marriage could be the undoing of her.
More women than ever are becoming independently wealthy. Figures show women aged between 22 and 29 in employment are now earning 3.6 per cent more on average per hour than men of the same age.
That means that there is a generation of women who are potentially going to have more to lose financially than gain if they marry. Our hard-won independence is becoming a millstone around our neck, romantically speaking.
'Unlike marriage, there simply are no laws to fall back on when you cohabit. People are literally making it up as they go along'
For me and the other women who earn more than their partners — my boyfriend works as a builder — the bottom line is this: If almost one in two marriages end in divorce, getting married is like taking a 50-50 gamble on everything you have worked for.
Ironically, this dilemma has had its up side. Will and I have had to air our fears. My last boyfriend behaved so badly, I told myself I would never fall in love again. Will has told me he understands this.
He insists that we keep separate finances for my peace of mind, and we have decided to hold on to our respective homes and buy or rent another place in which to live together. But how do we manage the practicalities of this
My search leads me to Steve Kirwan, of Nowell Meller solicitors, who chairs the cohabitation committee of the national legal advice centre Resolution.
He first started drafting ‘co-habs’ for couples who didn’t want to marry 20 years ago. Millions of couples still mistakenly believe there is such a thing as ‘common-law’ marriage, when there absolutely is not.
This means the law is very ambiguous about who owns what when you cohabit.
It is a double-edge sword: for a woman who has lived with a man as though she is his wife for 40 years, it can mean she has no right to any financial settlement if he leaves her. And for a City boy who has allowed his girlfriend to move in with him for a few years, it can mean her trying to claim she has a stake in his flash pad.
Too much to lose: Melissa Kite wants to keep her horse, dog and wealth protected when she moves in with her boyfriend
Unlike marriage, there simply are no laws to fall back on when you cohabit. People are literally making it up as they go along.
‘It’s a minefield. The longer these relationships go on, the harder it is to produce evidence about who paid for what 20 years ago,’ says Mr Kirwin.
He believes all unmarried couples who buy a house together should have a co-hab because without one they will have no say in the division of jointly owned property, which simply gets split 50-50 — even if one partner has put in vastly more than another.
Richard Collins, a divorce lawyer at Charles Russell solicitors, says: ‘I have seen a rise in co-hab agreements in the last few years. I’m on my third one this year and a few years ago I would only do one or two a year.
'Could this, present a risk in
itself, making our relationship less likely to succeed because we
haven't made a proper leap of faith'
‘People want to protect themselves. A guy might want his girlfriend to move in but doesn’t want her claiming she has a stake in the property if she goes shopping with him to Ikea.’
Whereas pre-nups are open to debate in the courts and must be seen to be ‘reasonable’, a co-hab is a straightforward contract and can stipulate anything.
It can include as much detail as you want, even down to who gets to keep the dinner service.
Mr Collins explains: ‘If you buy a gift for a partner, is it a contribution towards the house If you mow the lawn, does that give you an entitlement to the property If you buy 12 plates, who keeps them’
They can also make provision for future offspring, and even who would get custody of the animals. I think I would like a simple contract, setting out that what each of us brought in, we take out. And that I get to keep the dog!
Of course, in trying to protect myself against anything going wrong, I’m aware that I’m keeping one foot, if not out of the door, then on the edge of the doormat, ready to bail at any moment.
Could this, I wonder, present a risk in itself, making our relationship less likely to succeed because we haven’t made a proper leap of faith Is it possible to keep everything separate, to indemnify yourself against risk in matters of the heart I am about to find out.
Once the ink is dried on any papers, it will be down to us — and good old-fashioned love.
Melissa Kite is the author of Real Life: One Woman’s Guide To Love, Men And Other Everyday Disasters, which is published by Constable on June 7