Cohabitation, also referred to as a common law marriage, living together or a domestic partnership, is not recognised as a legal relationship by South African law. There is, therefore, no law that regulates the rights of parties in a cohabitation relationship. Cohabitation generally refers to people who, regardless of gender, live together without being validly married to each other. In the past, these relationships were called extramarital cohabitation. Put simply, men and women living together do not have the rights and duties married couples have. Because their relationship is not recognised by the law as a marriage, the rights and duties that marriage confers do not apply. This is the case irrespective of the duration of the relationship. Therefore contrary to popular belief, the assumption that if you stay with your partner for a certain amount of time a common law marriage comes into existence whereby you will obtain certain benefits is incorrect. In South Africa, cohabitation has become more common over the past few years and the number of cohabitants increases by almost 100 per cent each year.
Unlike marriage, which is regulated by specific laws that protect the individuals in the relationship, cohabitation offers no such comfort. For example, when a cohabitant dies without a valid will, their partner has no right to inherit under the Intestate Succession Act. A cohabitant can also not rely on the provisions of the Maintenance of Surviving Spouses Act to secure maintenance on the death of a partner. Furthermore, there is no obligation on cohabitants to maintain each other and they have no enforceable right to claim maintenance. South African banks normally do not allow joint accounts for cohabitants. An account will usually be opened in one partner’s name, but giving the other partner co-signing rights.
There is no right of intestate succession (when someone dies without a will) between domestic partners, no matter how long they have lived together. A partner is not automatically regarded as an heir or dependant. The rules of intestate succession as set out in the Intestate Succession Act, 1987, are clear. In the event of there being no valid will, the beneficiaries are, in the first instance, a spouse or descendants or both. In the event of there being no spouse or descendants, the estate devolves upon other more distant members of the bloodline.
If the surviving partner is not named in a will, he/she will be faced with the monstrous task of having to prove his/her specific contribution to the joint estate before entitlement will be forthcoming. Proving actual contribution is often extremely difficult, especially when a partner has died. Litigation is usually lengthy, costly and unwelcome, particularly at a time already fraught with emotional trauma. This problem is exacerbated if the deceased had not divorced a previous spouse. In law, the first spouse clearly has the leverage to proceed and claim the entire estate.