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Splitting up when you have been living together

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If you aren't married or in a civil partnership, there is nothing to legally tie you to a relationship. A common misunderstanding is a belief in 'common law marriage' but no such thing actually exists in the UK, therefore a court cannot interfere in the division of assets etc. in the case of a couple (either malefemale or same sex) who have simply been co-habiting. However, a court can help you arrange access to your children, for example.

Some couples draw up 'Cohabitation Contracts' or 'Living Together Agreements' before they move in together - these documents outline the rights and obligations of each partner towards the other. Cohabitation Contracts are not legally enforceable but they can remind a separating couple of their original intentions and pave the way for a smoother break up.

Separation Advice

Separation (as a legal term), is relevant to couples who may wish to formally separate without an immediate divorce or dissolution of their relationship. For some people, for example, divorce - perhaps for reasons of belief or faith - may not be an option. Nonetheless, they may wish to live apart from their former partner but with family and financial arrangements in place. In such cases, a solicitor can help to draw up a Separation Agreement or Deed of separation, which can cover issues such as maintenance, the children and the family home.

Either partner can also take matters further by applying to the court for a Decree of Judicial Separation (a final but less common alternative to divorce often used when one party has a moral or religious objection to divorce). This is a formal matter and you should seek legal advice first.

Divorce Or Dissolution

A divorce or dissolution is an order of the court that formally brings a marriage or a civil partnership to an end leaving both parties free to enter into another (legal) relationship if they wish. To grant such an order, the court must be satisfied that the relationship has irretrievably broken down because of a specific reason or reasons. You must usually be able to demonstrate evidence of adultery, unreasonable behaviour, two years' desertion, two years of separation if both parties agree or five years of separation (no consent needed).

In England and Wales, a couple must have been legally together for at least a year before they can apply for divorce or dissolution. Different laws apply in Scotland and you are advised to see the Scottish version of this 'Relationship Breakdown Guide' for more information.

To file for divorce, you must lodge a petition to the court outlining the grounds on which you are applying. If your partner does not contest the divorce, you will receive a Decree Nisi - a form which shows that the court is satisfied that the grounds for divorce have been established. At a later date, you will receive a second form - the Decree Absolute - which makes your divorce final and irrevocable.

The length of time a divorce takes can vary from case to case. At best, you can expect proceedings to take four to six months. Remember, it is possible to stop divorce proceedings or have the Decree Nisi rescinded but the Decree Absolute is set in stone.

Divorce, dissolution or separation are unlike other legal situations because they are concerned with emotional as well as practical issues. The lives of the whole family are affected by the outcome, so the way in which the settlement is reached can be almost as important as the settlement itself. Both parties should, therefore, seek the advice of an experienced solicitor or mediator.

Only the individuals concerned can solve all the problems that divorce or separation bring. A good solicitor or mediator, who adopts a constructive and conciliatory approach, can help to reduce much of the distress associated with the ending of a legally binding relationship.

Some couples now enter into a prenuptial agreement outlining what they would expect to happen or be entitled to in the event of their relationship breaking down. Such an agreement may be upheld by a court in the case of a dispute if the marriage fails. It is worth noting that proceedings concerning your children of finances run alongside and separate to the main divorce suit and do not have to be concluded before the final Decree is granted.

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