Are you good friends or are you legally man and wife?

With apologies to the sexual stereotyping as we also mean man and man and wife and wife

Following the death, or separation from a spouse or a partner it can be difficult for the survivor to get used to living on their own.  In some cases they may remarry or they might just form a friendship with someone of the opposite or same sex.  This situation can apply equally to those who have chosen to stay single.  Possibly they have never married or been in a civil partnership and have always chosen to ‘live alone’ That doesn’t prevent the forming of friendships.

Each person continues to maintain their own household, however, they spend a lot of time together in the houses of each other: eating meals; watching TV; even going on holiday together; attending family celebrations and to the outside world looking very much as if they are a couple, notwithstanding that at the end of the day they each return to their own separate homes.  One of them then dies and the survivor brings a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents Act) 1975.  This allows spouses, children, people who are financially dependent and those who have lived together as ‘man and wife’ for more than two years to bring a claim against the estate of a deceased person on the basis that it does not provide adequate financial provision for them.

Having just seen a client in this very situation I was reminded of the case of Beryl Swetenham and Alex Bryce.

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What do we mean by husband and wife?

The term here is not used in the marital or civil partner sense but in recognition of people who cohabit for more than two years, whether they be a same sex or different sex couple.

In the case of Swetenham v Walkley [2014], Beryl Swetenham bought a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975 against Richard Walkley who was the executor of the estate of the late Alexander Bryce.

In the 1980s, Beryl and Alex started going out together.  Alex would often stay overnight at Beryl’s house, he had his own bedroom and kept his clothes there, but slept more often at his own house.

They attended social events as a couple and Alex moved into Beryl’s social circle, meeting neighbours and family members.  Once he retired, he spent a lot of his time with Beryl, although they each maintained their separate existences.  Beryl did Alex’s washing and ironing, and often he would pay for meals when they went out.  They would care for each other when ill.

It was argued that they had merely been close and mutually supportive friends.  It was pointed out that Alex had kept certain information secret from Beryl, in particular that he had retired and had bought an additional property.

The court found that Beryl was entitled to bring a claim

This was based on the fact that the pair acted in such a manner that they were a joint household.  The fact that they kept separate properties and still slept there did not undermine that that.  Neither was it relevant that there was no communal pot of money.

The keeping of secrets did not negate this relationship.  Alex was a private, somewhat eccentric person, but it was held that he had been a true and supportive partner to Beryl and they had been in a loving and committed relationship in which each had provided practical and emotional support throughout.

The Court held Alex had not been living a life elsewhere, he had been living with Beryl.  Whether or not they had a sexual relationship was unimportant.  What was relevant was the ties between them, the cooking, the laundry arrangements, the reminding each other of appointments and ensuring that they were kept, providing support during times of ill health, time spent together watching television or going out for food. 

These were things which happen between friends.  However one person doing all of those things all the time to the exclusion of all others for a period of approximately 30 years indicated something more deep rooted and fundamental than mere companionship.  The evidence pointed to the couple as having lived as man and wife.  There was no single determinative factor, it was a combination of all of them.

This case illustrates that relationships are never black and white.  Maintaining separate households doesn’t mean the courts wont regard you as ‘man and wife.’ When making your will its important to think about the relationships in your life and what hey are in practice.

Nigel George is the partner in charge of the Life Planning Department
25 April 2023

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