In 2017 cohabitants were the fastest growing family type in the UK. Of the 19 million families in the UK, cohabiting couple families accounted for 3.3 million families. The numbers are significant. But why are cohabitants still being left out in the cold, with few if any rights (or responsibilities) on relationship breakdown?
As we approach Resolution’s Cohabitation Awareness Week, Family Law in Partnership associate Carla Ditz looks at where we currently stand on rights and responsibilities for couples who live together and where we are (hopefully!) heading.
Rights for cohabitants – Where are we now?
The message is simple:
“Couples who cohabit or live together do not have the same legal rights as a couple who are married or who are in a civil partnership.”
In reality, this means that the law gives cohabitants little or no legal protection when the relationship comes to an end. Unlike married couples, the legal concept of financial provision on relationship breakdown is not available for unmarried couples and a cohabitant may be limited some property entitlements, if anything at all. In essence, there is no legal framework setting out the rights and responsibilities of couples who are not married or in a civil partnership when their relationship comes to an end. To put this in perspective, a couple may have been living together for 20 years and may indeed have had children together. But if their relationship breaks down, there is no responsibility on the financially stronger party to make any form of financial provision for their former partner. The opposite is true if the parties were married.
Unfortunately, the message doesn’t always get through to those who need to hear it. Many people falsely believe that they will be protected by the notion of a “common law marriage”. This is a common misconception and one which can have disastrous financial consequences if a party is seeking to rely on it.
Where are we heading?
The campaign for change has been long fought. The family lawyers organisation Resolution is at the forefront of a campaign for cohabitants highlighting that the law is in need of modernisation, seeking to raise awareness of the issues and pushing for legislative change. Unfortunately, the issue is low on the political agenda. The campaign for change gained some momentum with the first reading of Lord Marks of Henley’s Cohabitation Rights Bill (the “Bill”) in July 2017. The second reading is yet to be scheduled.
So what does the Bill attempt to do?
The Bill provides that if the couple have children together or they have been in a relationship for a period of 3 years or more, either of them may apply to the court for a ‘Financial Settlement Order’. The application must be made within 24 months of the parties ceasing to live together (unless there are exceptional circumstances). Various considerations would be taken into account by the court when making an award such as the income and financial needs of the parties as well as the welfare of any minor children. An order can include payment of a lump sum, transfers of property or pension sharing.
It worth bearing in mind that the Bill has been introduced to Parliament a number of times but has never progressed. If the Bill does become law, however, this will secure long-awaited and well-deserved protection for cohabitants.
A link to the Cohabitants Rights Bill can be found here
How to promote change?
The purpose of Resolution’s Cohabitation Awareness Week is two fold:
- It is vital that cohabitants are aware of the limited extent of their rights on relationship breakdown. Once this position is understood, cohabitants might chose to enter into a cohabitation agreement and make provision for any property owned by the parties and for the maintenance and upkeep of any property. But this of course does not solve the key issue that reform is needed at a legislative level.
- The second objective must therefore be to encourage and promote a change in the law. All members of Resolution will have received a bulletin from Resolution actively encouraging them to contact their local MP and highlight the need for reform.
The growing trend for couples to live together without getting married must be the driver behind the need for legislative reform. As it currently stands, unmarried couples do not benefit from basic legal rights when their relationship comes to an end. An understanding of this is essential and family lawyers need to help their clients to understand the consequences of relationship breakdown and sensibly resolve matters, including the use of mediation, should any disputes arise.
For more information on the rights and responsibilities of couples who live together, please visit our Living Together and Mediation pages as well as Resolution’s Cohabitation Awareness page and advice on living together. For further information, please speak to a member of our team of specialist family lawyers on 020 7420 5000 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.