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Cohabitation Nation: exploring the myth of ‘common law marriage’

21/11/2019

Author: Richard Dilks

Family, Legal Updates

The Association for Family lawyers, Resolution, found that 46% of cohabiting couples wrongly believe “common-law marriage” laws exist for couples who choose not to marry. As part of their annual Awareness Week Resolution are focusing on the need for legal reform, to provide at least basic rights for cohabiting couples who separate. Between 25 – 29 November 2019, they will be campaigning on, and raising awareness of, the issues facing our ‘cohabitation nation’.

The fastest growing family type

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the fastest growing family type in 2017 was cohabiting households with 3.3 million cohabiting families compared to just 1.5 million in 1996. This equates to 1 in every 5 families in the UK.

Many couples starting a family together now choose to delay marriage or avoid it altogether.

Legal disadvantages

There are legal disadvantages, however, for unmarried couples. The law does not currently offer protection for cohabiting couples in the same way as for married couples.

Whilst particularly relevant in unfortunate cases where a relationship breaks down, there are also implications for couples who wish to stay together.

Rights upon the break down of an unmarried relationship

It is possible for a couple to live together for many years and bring up children together, but at the end of the relationship not to have any financial claim for income or assets built up during the relationship.

Other cohabitation issues

As opposed to rights after marriage, a cohabitee is not legally classed as the next of kin. If one partner were to die without making a Will, the surviving partner is not classed as next of kin, so they would not automatically have a right to a share of a property or possessions.

Financially speaking, in certain circumstances, there are some tax advantages to marriage that don’t apply in the same way for unmarried couples. This and further issues are explained in a good article on the Citizens Advice Bureau website, ‘Living together and marriage: Legal differences.‘

Providing protection

Via Resolution and other lobby groups, there is a movement to persuade MPs to consider updating the law around cohabitation to catch up with the change in society.

There are also some steps individuals and cohabiting couples can take to protect themselves in advance of anything going wrong, including:

  1. A Cohabitation or Living Together Agreement can detail issues including who pays the bills, the operation of bank accounts and how any property should be divided should the relationship end in the future.
  2. Before any property is jointly purchased, a Declaration of Trust can set out how sale proceeds will be divided in the future if you split up, for example.
  3. Making a Will, to detail your wishes regarding your dependants and property.

Richard Dilks is a specialist Norwich Family Law solicitor at Hatch Brenner on Theatre Street. He is a member of Resolution, and can provide advice to those who are planning on cohabiting or are in a cohabiting relationship. Call 01603 660 811, or email richarddilks@hatchbrenner.co.uk

Cohabitation Nation: exploring the myth of ‘common law marriage’

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