Recent statistics released by NatCen suggest that almost half (46%) of British adults mistakenly believe that unmarried couples who live together have the same rights as legally married couples. Unfortunately there is no such thing as a ‘common-law marriage’ – the correct term is cohabitation, and under current UK family law, unmarried couples are at risk of slipping through the gaps when it comes to legal protection. This means that if a cohabiting couple decide to separate, or one of them dies, they may find themselves in financial difficulty due to a lack of legal protection regarding the fair division of assets and property, and inheritance laws. Even more worrying, these beliefs are more persistent in couples with children, with 55% of unmarried, cohabiting parents believing in common-law marriage as compared to 41% of childless households.
Anne Barlow, Professor of Family Law and Policy at the University of Exeter commented: “Our data clearly shows that almost half of us falsely believe that common law marriage exists in England and Wales when, in reality, cohabitation grants no general legal status to a couple. Cohabiting couples now account for the fastest growing type of household and the number of opposite sex cohabiting couple families with dependent children has more than doubled in the last decade. Yet whilst people’s attitudes towards marriage and cohabitation have shifted, policy has failed to keep up with the times.
“The result is often severe financial hardship for the more vulnerable party in the event of separation, such as women who have interrupted their career to raise children. Therefore, it’s absolutely crucial that we raise awareness of the difference between cohabitation, civil partnership and marriage and any differences in rights that come with each.”
Family law organisation Resolution has been campaigning for a change in UK law to improve the legal status of cohabiting couples and bring it in line with married couples. Cohabitation Committee Chair Graeme Fraser also commented on the findings, stating:
“The figures released by NatCen underline precisely why a change in the law is so desperately needed. Despite the absence of legal protection for cohabitants regularly hitting the headlines, levels of awareness are still worryingly low. This is something Resolution and others have been warning government about for years.
“With cohabiting couples the fastest growing family type in England and Wales, it’s time for the government to grasp the nettle and introduce at least some basic legal rights. Otherwise millions of cohabitants continue to be at risk, and could be left with a nasty shock if their partner passes away, or their relationship comes to an end.”
At Frances Lindsay & Co we talk a lot about cohabitation and the importance of having a cohabitation agreement in place if you are unmarried and living with your partner – particularly when there are children involved. A cohabitation agreement is a legal document that helps to ensure that you are protected as a couple and as individuals should you decide to separate, or if one of you dies. In addition, an up-to-date will (and a deed of trust if you own property together) provide extra assurance that your legal rights are taken into consideration as an unmarried couple.
It’s our hope that family law will be brought up to date to help protect cohabiting couples in the near future, but until then, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our friendly family law solicitors at Frances Lindsay & Co to discuss your situation. Whether you’re looking to draw up a cohabitation agreement or a Will, thinking of buying or selling property, or considering separation, we’re here to take the weight off your shoulders and ensure that your legal rights are protected. Get in touch at www.franceslindsay.co.uk or call us on 01628 634667 to book a free 45-minute consultation.