Figures from the Office for National Statistics have recently shown that the fastest growing family type in 2017 has been cohabiting households with 3.3 million cohabiting families compared to just 1.5 million in 1996. Many couples starting a family together now choose to delay marriage or avoid it altogether.
There are legal disadvantages, however, for unmarried couples. The Association for Family lawyers, Resolution, found that two-thirds of cohabiting couples wrongly believe “common-law marriage” laws exist for couples who choose not to marry. In fact, 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 not be entitled to any financial claim once the relationship ends, either for income built upon during the relationship or shared assets.
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 for families with married parents that don’t apply in the same way for unmarried parents. This and further issues are explained in a good article on the Citizens Advice Bureau website, ‘Living together and marriage: Legal differences.‘
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:
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.
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.
Making a Will, to detail your wishes regarding your dependants and property.
Richard Dilks is a specialist Family Law solicitor at Hatch Brenner on Theatre Street in Norwich. He is a member of Resolution, and can provide advice to those who are planning on cohabiting or are in a cohabiting relationship.