There is a widespread misconception among the public that cohabiting couples are in a “common law marriage”, and have the same rights as legally married couples. Research in 2013 showed that 47% of 18-34 year olds believed that cohabiting couples had the same legal rights as married couples. And 58% of all people were unaware that “common law” marriage has no status in law.
Figures released by the Office for National Statistics show that there were 3.3 million families with cohabiting couples in 2016, a figure more than double the 1.5 million in 1996. Although the most common family type remains the married or civil partner couple, with almost 13 million families, the cohabiting couple family is the fastest growing family type in the UK, continuing the trend of the last 20 years.
It makes no difference if a cohabiting couple have been together for just a few months or many years, nor if they have children together or own a property. The simple fact is that cohabitees have little or no legal protection when things go wrong.
Sadly the separation of cohabiting parents now accounts for almost half of family breakdowns, with consequences which can often be more serious than if a traditional marriage breaks up. Health problems, including depression, are often worse, abuse of partners increases, as does unfaithfulness, and there is less wealth built up in the relationship. Nearly half of all children are now born outside of marriage, and it is often they who suffer the most through family breakdowns.
So, what should cohabiting couples do to safeguard themselves and their families? Until there are changes in the law to establish their legal status, cohabitees should consider drawing up a Cohabitation Agreement. This can cover rent and mortgage payments, dealing with bank accounts and debts, how to dispose of a property and apportioning the sale proceeds, pensions, and child support in the event of the relationship breaking up.
Here at Bretherton Law our solicitors have been helping families cope with changes in their circumstances for over 50 years. We are accredited in Family and Children Law by the Law Society, and are members of Resolution, the organisation representing Family Law professionals aiming to reduce conflict on separation.
We know that it can be stressful and complicated when relationships break down. So turning to an experienced Family Law solicitor to draw up a Cohabitation Agreement before any problems arise is the sensible choice. Of course, no-one wants or expects their relationship to break down, but having the safeguard of a Cohabitation Agreement will make sure both parties know where they stand. They and their families can then get on with living their life and enjoying their time together.