For many couples who already live together, marriage may seem like a redundant formality – a ‘piece of paper’ that serves primarily to validate the relationship. However, marriage isn’t just an archaic social convention or an official rubber stamp of approval; in this article, we look at the clear legal advantages afforded by the act of getting hitched.
In today’s world, marriage rates are at “historical lows”. Whether this might be due to the high cost of weddings, an increase in parental divorces as perceived by the younger generations, a general decline in cultural religiosity or a number of other factors, it’s clear that the British population is experiencing a decline in motivation to tie the knot.
However, marriage isn’t just an archaic social convention or an official rubber stamp of approval – there are clear legal rights afforded by the act of getting hitched, and even setting aside the emotional associations of commitment and devotion there are many good and pragmatic reasons to walk down the aisle together.
Wills and intestacy
It’s often thought that a cohabiting yet unmarried couple can be said to be in a ‘common law marriage’ which affords them certain rights, but unfortunately there is no real legal basis for this.
For example, if one partner in an unmarried relationship dies without leaving a legally valid will, no part of their estate will automatically pass to their partner. With no official record of their wishes, the law gets to decide how their money and possessions are redistributed – and without a married spouse, any and all inheritance may pass instead to children, parents or other family members (or, if all else fails, the Crown).
In marriage, however, a surviving spouse has an automatic right to some or all of the deceased partner’s estate. The first £250,000 of the estate passes directly to the spouse, and any remainder is then split fifty-fifty between the spouse and any children (if the estate is worth less than £250,000, it passes in its entirety to the spouse).
Another advantage of marriage is that anything left to a spouse by a deceased partner is completely free of inheritance tax – and not only that, they can also inherit any unused tax-free allowance.
Everybody in the UK has a £325,000 total tax-free allowance, meaning that they can leave gifts in their will up to that amount without the recipients having to pay any inheritance tax. If any of that allowance is unused upon the death of one partner, the remainder passes to their spouse (meaning that they can, in theory, essentially end up with a double allowance).
If there are children in the relationship, marriage can play a big role in the determination of ‘parental responsibility’.
Parental responsibility is how the law identifies who has the power to make major decisions about a child’s upbringing and welfare – such as where the child should go to school, or whether consent should be given for a medical procedure.
The child’s mother always has parental responsibility, by default, from the moment of birth; the father may not, unless he was married to the mother or named on the birth certificate. In other words, an unmarried father may not necessarily have any say over major decisions in his child’s life.
However, he can gain parental responsibility by marrying the mother, and both parents will retain their responsibility indefinitely – even if they later divorce.
It is important to note that parental responsibility and child maintenance are two similar-sounding but completely different legal concepts – as even without parental responsibility as such, an unmarried father is still expected to contribute to the welfare of the child.
Tax breaks and financial perks
As of 2015, the UK government offers a ‘marriage tax allowance’ designed to help couples where one partner is a taxpayer and the other is not (usually because they earn less than the usual income tax threshold).
The marriage tax allowance allows the non-taxpaying partner to transfer 10% of their tax-free allowance to their taxpaying spouse – meaning they will pay income tax on a reduced proportion of their earnings (and as of the time of writing, this can mean an extra £250 in the taxpayer’s pocket – although the allowance changes every year).
To claim, the non-taxpaying partner must apply to HMRC to have their allowance transferred to their spouse (this can be done quickly via their website). It’s also possible to claim marriage tax allowance for previous years, if the criteria are met for each.
Another financial advantage of marriage is that if one partner dies, the surviving spouse may be able to get a bigger state pension payout if they’re not already claiming the full amount.
It’s also the case that if the deceased partner had opted to defer their payments in order to build up a bigger pension pot, their spouse may be able to claim the extra State Pension or a lump sum.
Also, assets transferred from one married partner to another are exempt from incurring capital gains tax. This can allow the couple to make the most of both of their individual capital gains allowance and effectively double the amount of their capital gains allowance as a unit – for example, by transferring assets between partners in order to make full use of both allowances.
In the end, marriage is so much more than an unnecessary tradition or a formality. In addition to the romantic, religious and social connotations, there are many clear, distinct and important legal and financial advantages to saying “I do.”
Simply put, a couple who are living together on a long-term basis without getting married may be missing opportunities to secure additional rights, advantages and tax breaks together (regardless of their appetite for established social custom or religious ceremony).
The commitment of marriage can be a very pragmatic step – by going ahead with the wedding, a couple can set themselves up well with extra financial support and legal protection for the coming years together.
This post was contributed by Girlings Solicitors – expert family law solicitors based in Ashford, Canterbury and Herne Bay. With nearly 140 years of experience providing personal, business and not-for-profit legal services, Girlings is one of the largest and oldest law firms in Kent.