December 16, 2011

What are the rights and wrongs in inheritance rules?

While long overdue and to some extent promising, new Law Commission proposals to allow co-habiting couples the same inheritance law rights as married couples just serve to highlight the glaring anomalies in the system that have yet to be addressed.


Clearly, rules drafted in 1925 have little relevance to modern-day family life and are in need of significant modification for the UK’s 2.3 million unmarried couples.


These rules stipulate that an unmarried person has no automatic right to their partner’s estate, unlike a married person’s inheritance rights, even where the married person’s spouse has died without writing a will – or intestate. It is estimated that 350,000 people a year die intestate.


The Law Commission proposes changes that would provide those cohabiting with the same inheritance rights as a married couple after five years – and cohabiting couples with children would be given those rights after only two years. Of course, children’s needs should be prioritised at all times but a three-year delay in equality for couples not having children could be deemed as manifestly unfair.


So it would seem, again unfairly, that parity between married and unmarried in inheritance terms depends on a death in the family. Furthermore, if the deceased has died intestate the effects of the proposed new legislation might be totally contrary to their actual wishes on dispersal of their assets.


As it is, the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 allows any dependent including spouse, civil partner, child – and, since 1996, cohabitees with two years’ “service” – to apply for an order from the deceased’s estate.


So, really, this move represents nothing more than superficial tinkering with top-level detail, when what is really needed is an in-depth grass-roots overhaul of the rights of cohabitees. Vulnerable partners in particular need greater protection from the law throughout the relationship, not just when the reaper comes to call.


Let us know below what you think about the proposed changes. Do they go far enough?