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Husband and Wife

Husband and Wife

Husband and Wife, in law, parties to a valid marriage and the relationship between them. Historically, the dominant legal concept was the fiction that the husband and wife were one person, and the legal expression of that person was the husband: he alone controlled all the property and legal relationships between the married couple and others.

Husband and Wife

From the mid-19th century, reforms established the separate legal personality of the wife, and her right to hold property and conclude contracts. This process was completed in the 20th century, and in English law, the legal rights of husband and wife are now established by considering their activities as though they were two single people. This can create difficulties when purchases are made for the marital home, without either party considering the legal position: strictly, the property belongs to whoever paid for it. The courts have avoided this problem by assuming an unspoken agreement that the property will be shared.

The same problem is not as acute if the parties divorce, since the courts have the power to adjust the ownership of property. In some jurisdictions, the concept of jointly owned “family property” overcomes the problem.

In the course of granting the wife these legal rights, the law has deprived her of certain other rights that protected her in her previous position. Most notably, a wife was formerly able to obtain credit in her husband’s name without his consent, in order to purchase necessities to maintain the household. A wife who is not maintained by her husband would today be expected to seek assistance from the courts.

A will is automatically revoked on marriage, and the estate of a deceased person passes to the spouse and any children in shares laid down by law. If a will made after marriage makes no provision for the spouse or dependents, they have a legal right to make a claim, which may override the will. This also applies to some unmarried cohabitees.

In legal proceedings, spouses are able to act as witnesses for and against each other. However, except in restricted circumstances, one spouse cannot be forced to testify against the other. A husband and wife may take legal proceedings against each other: it is common for an injured person to sue his or her spouse after an accident caused by the spouse, in order to obtain compensation under the spouse’s insurance.

Husband and Wife

Contributed By:
David Watson

Reviewed By:
Simon Levene

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