Will you live in his house, or your house?

In the old days, the boyfriend/fiance would be proposing. But romantic matters are rarely so simple for baggage-laden 40-somethings.

Call me a cynic, but nowadays, if you fall head over heels in love with a wonderful man, women cannot bring themselves to think about marriage. This is down to bad break-ups, in which after, women are left feeling horribly distrustful. But I don’t want to shut the door on someone who might just be The One, either.

With this in mind, now begins an even more complex discussion about how you would manage a life together if you didn’t marry. Whose house would we live in? His, mine, or a new one?

If you decide to start a new life together, would you buy it, or rent it? Would you retain our own properties as boltholes? Who would be responsible for the rent or mortgage if we broke up? How would you 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?

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).

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 women usually find themselvers at 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, most couples have enough to fill a lost luggage centre.

With no dependents, do you demand that you pay for his keep, or give him half the value of my home.

When your man puts 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.

Do you 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.

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.

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.

Insist that you keep separate finances for my peace of mind, and try to hold on to your respective homes and buy or rent another place in which to live together. But how do you 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.

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.

‘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!

Could this, I wonder, present a risk in itself, making a 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?

Once the ink is dried on any papers, it will be down to the two of you…and good old-fashioned love.

by Susan Floyd


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