A common-law or cohabitational relationship arises when there are two persons of the opposite sex, who not being married to each other, are living or have lived together as husband and wife. In Trinidad and Tobago, the parties to a common-law relationship have rights under the Cohabitational Relationships Act and the Distribution of Estates Act.
Cohabitational Relationship Act
This act empowers the court to make orders for maintenance for a common-law spouse as well orders in respect of their rights to property. To be granted any of these orders the person must satisfy the court that either:
• the common-law relationship has lasted for at least five years; or
• there is a child or children of the relationship; or
• the party has made substantial contributions to the common-law relationship.
Substantial contributions include financial contributions made directly or indirectly, contributions as a homemaker or parent to the welfare of the family during the common-law relationship. The common-law spouse must apply to the court within two years of the date the parties stopped living together to be able to obtain any of these orders.
Under the act, parties can have a cohabitational relationship or separation agreement which is an agreement made between the parties before, during or after their relationship, in which they agree to their respective rights and obligations in relation to maintenance and interest in property during their relationship or when they cease to live together or upon death. The court still retains the power, however, to vary these agreements in certain circumstances.
Distribution of Estates Act
Under this act, after the death of a common-law spouse who has left no valid will, the surviving common-law spouse or cohabitant is entitled to benefit from the estate of deceased once they lived with that person in a common-law relationship for at least five years immediately before the deceased died. The surviving common-law spouse is entitled to benefit from the estate of the deceased in the following ways:
(a) where there are no children and no surviving legally married spouse, the common-law spouse is entitled to the whole estate;
(b) where the deceased has a child or children and no surviving legally-married spouse, the surviving common-law spouse is entitled to half of the estate;
(c) where the deceased has a surviving legally-married spouse, the surviving common-law spouse is only entitled to a portion of the deceased's estate acquired during the common-law relationship.
To claim his or her share of the estate the common-law spouse must file with the High Court a notice of interest as the surviving cohabitant within 28 days of the deceased's death. The surviving common-law spouse must then apply to the court within three months thereafter to obtain an order affirming that there was a common-law relationship and how much of the estate he or she is entitled to.
Extensions of time may be obtained for these time limits if the spouse can show good reason. This column is not legal advice. If you have a legal problem, you should consult a legal adviser.