The organisation that campaigns for family law reform, Resolution, has just held a Cohabitation Awareness Week aimed at highlighting the need for basic changes in the law to protect cohabiting couples who separate.

In spite of political noises calling for reform, neither the Tories nor Labour indicated any intention to legislate in this area in their manifestos for the 2019 general election. So the overall position of cohabitees remains weak.

Importantly however one group of cohabitees does stand to benefit from greater legal protection following the introduction of civil partnerships for heterosexual couples. We discuss this new development in more detail below.

Why Do Couples Cohabit?

The most recent data from the Office of National Statistics shows that cohabiting couples are the fastest-growing type of family arrangement. More and more, people choose to live together before or without getting married. In our experience many people cohabit under the misconception that by doing so they somehow acquire legal rights to property and financial support of the relationship should break down. This is simply not the case. There’s no such thing in law as common law marriage.

Many others choose not to marry because of a fundamental distrust of or opposition to the institution of marriage. And for many people in this group the new availability of civil partnerships will be welcome.

Heterosexual Civil Partnerships

From December 2019 heterosexual couples can enter a civil partnership for the first time – a possible route to protection for couples that don’t want to marry. When civil partnerships were introduced in 2004 they were made available only to same-sex couples. At the time gay people could not get married.

Following a legal challenge from a West London couple that viewed the institution of marriage as sexist, the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that preventing heterosexuals to enter civil partnerships was discriminatory. It’s estimated that there could be around 30,000 civil partnerships between straight couples in the next year.

Civil Partnerships v Cohabitation

The decision on whether to enter a civil partnership if you have been living together is a personal one. But you should be aware that if your relationship ends, your rights in a whole range of areas may differ depending on whether you are a cohabitee or a civil partner. Areas to consider include:

  • Division of joint property, including bank accounts
  • Ownership of the family home
  • Parental responsibility and child arrangements
  • Appointment of guardians for any children
  • Taxation
  • Inheritance
  • Maintenance
  • Responsibility for debts
  • Pension entitlements

How To Get A Civil Partnership

There’s a two-stage process for heterosexuals wishing to avail of the new right to a civil partnership:

  1. The notice – Both intending partners must give notice of their intentions in person at their local register office – even if you are registering your partnership somewhere else. You must provide personal details, identification and details of where you are going to hold the civil partnership. This information is then made publicly available for a period of 28 days so that if anyone wishes to object to your civil partnership they can do so.
  2. Registration of the civil partnership – Once the 28 days have elapsed, and providing there are no objections or legal obstacles you can proceed to register your partnership. This can be done at any register office or at any approved venue. Churches and other religious venues aren’t obliged to perform civil partnerships.

Registration is complete once both parties sign a document known as a ‘civil partnership schedule’.

For those who have a moral objection to marriage a civil partnership may be appropriate. However others will still object to formalising their relationship in this way and they may seek a degree of legal protection through a cohabitation agreement. If you’d like advice on your rights as a cohabitee or are considering a civil partnership you can call us at Brookman Solicitors in London on 44 (0) 20 7430 8470. You can also contact us contact us online.

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