Cohabiting Couple Rights: Relationship Breakdown

Cohabiting Couple Rights: Relationship Breakdown
Legally reviewed by: Shakeela Bi In: Family

Changes in UK Family Types

The UK’s marriage rate is at an all-time low, with many couples opting for cohabitation over marriage or civil partnership. Cohabitants represent the fastest-growing family type due to shifting societal norms and changing attitudes toward marriage. Factors such as delayed marriage for career and educational pursuits, financial considerations, fear of divorce, and a desire for autonomy contribute to this trend. As a result, cohabitation family types account for approximately 3.6 million partners in the UK. Furthermore, over half of the children in England and Wales are born to unmarried or non-civil partnered parents.

Legal Rights Gap for Cohabitants

However, despite the rising number of couples cohabiting, the legal rights of cohabitants remain minimal in the event of a relationship breakdown. The misconception of “common law marriage” persists, leaving many unaware that they lack legal protection similar to married couples. It’s important that unmarried partners living together realise that they do not hold the same rights as married or civil partnership couples. A concerning 46% of the population in England and Wales claims to believe that legal rights remain the same between married and unmarried couples who live together.

The Critical Need for Legal Reform of Cohabiting Couple Rights

In a cohabitation scenario, the legal implications for separation significantly differ from those in a marriage or civil partnership. For couples who are married or in a civil partnership, the law dictates that assets, including the family home, are divided based on fairness. The law considers the overall circumstances and financial needs of both parties and any children involved. However, for unmarried couples, navigating the complex legal landscape of property, trusts, and child support becomes essential. Unlike the legal framework for married couples, these laws may not prioritise fairness and needs, potentially leaving one partner without entitlement to a share of the family home. As a result, this can leave one or both parties in a vulnerable financial position, potentially also impacting any children involved.

Historical Resistance to Reform

Despite comprehensive reform proposals by the Law Commission in 2007 and recent calls by the Women and Equalities Committee, the government has been reluctant to initiate reforms. Concerns about undermining marriage, imposing unwanted rights, and the complexity of implementing a new system have been cited as reasons for opposition.

Overcoming Obstacles to Reform

Academics and practitioners working in family law aren calling for reform of the law on cohabiting couple rights so there is a fairer and more coherent system in place in order to help cohabiting couples in the event of separation.

A comprehensive reform proposal was produced by the Law Commission in 2007, but the government announced that it was not going to be taking the recommendations forward during that parliamentary term. Last year the Women and Equalities Committee released a report calling for the introduction of remedies for cohabitants who have lived together for a specified period of time or have a child together, but the government again ruled out dealing with any reforms for the time being.

Why Has Cohabiting Couple Right Reform Not Happened?

Resistance to reform in the legal treatment of cohabiting couples can be attributed to some of the following concerns.

One prominent argument is the fear of undermining marriage. However, proposed reforms do not seek equal treatment for cohabitants and married couples. Instead, they aim to establish a fundamental legal safety net for cohabiting couples, recognising the changing landscape where more couples opt for cohabitation over marriage.

Another contention regards imposing rights on couples who may prefer to avoid legal obligations. Advocates for reform emphasise the importance of choice, clarifying that proposed changes would allow cohabiting couples to opt out of legal protections, preserving their autonomy.

Furthermore, those opposing legal reform also state concerns over the perceived complexity of implementing a new system. Opposers to reform raise questions about defining cohabitation and determining who qualifies for protection. However, those for legal reform argue that careful drafting and studying systems in other countries can address these concerns.

Additionally, resistance to reform is tied to the government’s stance of delaying legal protections for cohabiting couples until reviews on divorce conclude, a process that may take years. As a result, critics question whether the review of divorce laws should impede a simultaneous examination of laws concerning cohabitants, due to the growth of cohabiting couples as a family type.

Is a Reform Cohabiting Couple Rights on the Horizon?

Despite previous push backs, in October 2023, Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry MP at the Labour Party Conference indicated that there is hope for legal advancements in the rights of cohabiting couples.

Current Recommendations for Couples

While awaiting legal change, advisors recommend that couples living together consider making a declaration of trust for property interests or drafting a cohabitation agreement for broader financial and practical aspects. These legal instruments provide certainty and clarity, ensuring couples enter into relationships with a clear understanding of financial arrangements.

Seeking Legal Guidance

If you are living together or planning to do so without marriage or civil partnership and wish to seek legal advice about your circumstances, do not hesitate to contact us. We are here to provide guidance and support in navigating the legal landscape for cohabiting couples.

Contact Cartwright King for legal assistance regarding cohabitation.

Legal Disclaimer.

All advice is correct at time of publication.