• 17th June, 2024
  • Posted by Madeleine Taggart
  • General News

Despite a dramatic rise in recent decades in the number of couples in England and Wales choosing to cohabit, unmarried individuals have no automatic right to inherit their partners’ estates should they die. Madeleine Taggart writes that the myth of the so-called ‘common law spouse’ has received fresh attention following the death of the Irish actor, Michael Gambon.


Whether in local repertory theatre groups or the studios of Hollywood, actors throughout history have become famous for their ability to bring a range of characters to life.

Whilst some plays or films are far-fetched and fantastical, full of special effects and elaborate costumes, many men and women have become renowned for their skill in presenting figures from rather more gritty and realistic backgrounds.

Regardless of the story, though, it can be a shock for audiences to discover that the lives of stars are really no different from their own.

I was reminded of that while reading of the domestic circumstances of the late Sir Michael Gambon.

He became feted for his versatility, playing everyone from gangsters to gumshoes, from works by Samuel Beckett and Shakespeare to perhaps his most well-known role for younger moviegoers, Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, the school attended by Harry Potter.

Sir Michael died last September, leaving almost his entire estate to Anne, his wife of more than 60 years.

However, media reports about the contents of his will seized upon the fact that the actor left nothing to his girlfriend, Philippa Hart, the woman with whom he’d lived for the last two decades of his life.

When relayed via the nation’s newspapers, such celebrity situations always seem incredibly messy and complex but Sir Michael’s life actually has parallels with those of many other people across England and Wales.

Even during the time since he set up home with Ms Hart, households up and down the country have undergone tremendous change.

Perhaps the greatest illustration of that is the increase in cohabitation.

Figures released within the last week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that there were nearly 3.5 million opposite-sex and same-sex cohabiting couples in England and Wales last year – almost 50 per cent more than in 2003.

Yet that shift has been accompanied by a troubling constant which has refused to yield; namely, the myth of the so-called ‘common law spouse’.

It is something which generally only proves to be an issue in the event of death or relationship collapse, exposing an enormous gulf between the respective rights of cohabitees and spouses.

Even if no will has been made by someone who dies, spouses have an automatic right to inherit the deceased’s estate.

Cohabitees, on the other hand, have no such rights. Instead, they must bring a legal claim under legislation introduced nearly half a century ago – the Inheritance (Provisions for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 – and demonstrate their financial dependence on a partner who has passed away.

Given a continued rise in the number of unmarried couples, we should perhaps not be surprised that the volume of such claims coming before the courts has also increased.

Statistics issued by the Ministry of Justice reveal that such cases have increased by 143 per cent in the course of the last decade alone.

It is a complication which has been recognised by parliament.

In August 2022, a House of Commons’ committee published a report calling for swift legal reform in order to address the inequalities which the death of or split from an unmarried partner created for women in particular.

Although that demand was rejected by the Government, a Labour victory at the forthcoming General Election could see such legislation introduced.

Despite having almost as much grounding in fact as some of the more dramatic productions which made Sir Michael Gambon’s reputation, the myth of the common law spouse has very real consequences.

Whilst his girlfriend Philippa Hart and the couple’s two children do not appear to have issued claims for a share of Sir Michael’s wealth, their example reinforces the impact of either deliberately excluding partners and children from a will or inadvertently failing to undertake proper estate planning.