Earlier this month the Office for National Statistics published its annual report into current trends in living arrangements in the UK. One of the more startling revelations was the continued increase in the number of people who live together without getting married.
Between 1996 and 2016 the number of cohabiting couples more than doubled – from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million now. In the past year alone the number of cohabiting households has increased by 100,000.
Many individuals in this position do not realise their legal position is precarious if the relationship ends.
Calls For A Change To The Law
Some countries, including Canada and Australia recognise the rights of cohabitees to some extent. Even within the UK there are limited rights for unmarried couples in Scotland and Northern Ireland. But ‘common law marriage’ is simply not recognised in England and Wales.
The revelation that cohabitee numbers are rising steadily is sure to reignite the campaign – led by family law group Resolution and others – for some kind of legal protection for unmarried partners. As the law currently stands it’s possible to live with someone for decades but still separate without facing any kind of financial claim.
All of this is in spite of the 2007 call by The Law Commission – the independent body set up to recommend changes to the law – for the ‘pluses and minuses’ of cohabitation to be fairly shared when a relationship ends. Successive governments have declined to act.
When Cohabitees Separate – The Reality
Here are some of the implications for unmarried couples who decide to separate:
- Property – The courts are powerless to interfere in strict legal ownership rules in the way they can when a married couple applies for financial settlement on divorce. Although there are remedies available through the law of trusts these are sometimes uncertain and precise interests can be difficult to prove.
- Inheritance – No rights exist under the laws of intestacy. A surviving cohabitee may apply for financial provision under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. But again rights are not always clear, and there is a risk of exposure to considerable legal costs.
- Taxation – Cohabitees don’t benefit from the same reliefs and exemptions available to spouses and civil partners.
- Parental rights – An unmarried father does not have automatic parental responsibility.
Unmarried couples can protect themselves through cohabitation agreements. In preparing cohabitation or ‘living together’ agreements for you we would consider issues such as:
- What property each of you own when entering the relationship
- How you wish to hold property you acquire while you live together
- Who is responsible for mortgages and other outgoings
- Measures that will come into play if you separate, for example maintenance payments and responsibility for debts
- What happens to property if one of you dies
As a member of Resolution, Brookman Solicitors is committed to the constructive resolution of family disputes. It makes sense to us for cohabiting couples to enter a tailor made ‘living together’ or cohabitation agreement. By doing so you can at least anticipate how your affairs would be regulated in the event of your relationship not working out. To find out how we can do this for you call us on + 44 (0)20 7430 8470 or contact us online.