According to the latest statistics from the Office of National Statistics, cohabitants number 3.3 million of 19 million families in the UK, having more than doubled from 1.5 million families in 1996. The latest Families and Households statistical bulletin suggests that this can be explained by an increasing trend to cohabit instead of marry, or to cohabit before marriage, particularly at younger ages.
This trend makes it all the more necessary to consider the financial impact of the breakdown of the relationship. As the law stands, it is possible to live together for years, and even have children together, and then leave when the relationship breaks down with no responsibility taken for those left behind, save for child maintenance. This can cause great difficulties for the financially weaker party, and is in stark contrast to the protection provided for married couples by law.
Resolution, the national organisation of family lawyers, has called for the introduction of some rights for cohabiting couples when they separate. Other countries such as Australia, Canada and Scotland already provide legal protection.
There is a balance to be struck however, between those who make a deliberate decision to cohabit, and who do not want or need the protection of legislation, and those who don’t. A key issue that needs to be addressed is ensuring that those who cohabit are aware at the outset exactly what rights they have. According to research in 2013, almost half the British public believe in the myth of ‘common law marriage’ – that cohabitants have the same or similar rights as married people. This is untrue. It will be interesting to see whether legislation addressing the disparity between provision for cohabitants and married couples will be forthcoming.
If you would like any information about cohabitation and what steps can be taken to protect you or your family on the breakdown of your relationship please contact Claire Tollefson on 01892 506191.