Figures recently published by the Office for National Statistics show that the cohabiting couple were the fastest growing family type in the UK. In 2016, those who were cohabiting had increased to 9.8% of the population from 6.8% of the population in 2002. The number of cohabiting families had reached 3.2 million in 2015 with 47.7% of births taking place outside marriage or civil partnership.
It seems therefore that marriage, once centre stage, is now sharing the limelight with cohabitation. This may not come as a surprise to people as the rate of divorce continues to soar. Another possible reason for the growth in cohabiting couples may be because more couples are cohabiting before marriage than was previously the case. Certainly, cohabitation is a viable alternative to marriage to those who have been deterred from the latter. It is important however for parties to avoid the legal pitfalls of cohabiting and take necessary steps to ensure certainty and efficiency in the event that the relationship breaks down.
Despite the trend towards cohabitating families, the law does not afford the same protection to cohabitees as it offers to married couples. There is a lack of information in this respect available to the public to ensure they are aware of their legal position. Indeed, a very common misconception is that cohabiting couples enjoy similar rights to married couples. Research carried out in 2008 showed that 51% of people still believe that there is a status of ‘common law marriage’ that gives cohabitants the same rights as married couples. This is false. Significantly, there is a lack of remedies for cohabitees to pursue to relieve potential financial hardship if the relationship breaks down. Unfortunately, the law is very slow at playing catch up and is some distance behind the pace of cohabitation growth.
In another attempt to address the lack of legal protection to cohabitees, the Law Commission reviewed this area in 2007 and subsequently published its report, Cohabitation: The Financial Consequences of Relationship Breakdown. The Government has delayed the imposition of the proposals. The burden therefore passes to legal experts to provide comprehensive and accessible advice to cohabitees on the steps they can take to protect themselves and pursue remedies. This is especially important as the amount of cohabiting families continues to rise. As a top ranked family department, we are very well placed to offer advice in this regard and would welcome any enquiries in this respect.
To discuss any of the issues arising from this article, please get in touch with any of the solicitors in the Family and Divorce team on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01494 411179.