Unmarried couples who cohabit are being warned by family law experts at Mogers Drewett that they do not have the legal protections they may think they have in the event of a relationship breakdown. Even if a couple has been living together for many years and have children, they have very limited legal responsibilities towards each other, which could leave either party vulnerable.
The call comes at the start of Cohabitation Awareness Week to raise awareness about the lack of rights for unmarried couples who live together which is being led by Resolution, who campaign for a fairer family justice system.
There are about seven million people in the UK living in a cohabiting relationship, making them the fastest growing family type in the country. In the South West, it is estimated that there are around 600,000 people in cohabiting relationships.
Victoria Strode, head of family department and associate solicitor at Mogers Drewett, said: “Despite an increase in those choosing to live together over marriage, there remains no such thing as ‘common law marriage’ in UK law. Common law status is something of a myth. In fact, cohabiting couples do not have the same legal rights as married couples.
“This is a growing problem that needs addressing urgently. More and more couples are going down the cohabitation route but are unaware that in the event the relationship breaks down they have very few financial rights.”
A Cohabitation Rights Bill to increase the rights of cohabiting individuals is currently in the very early stages of going through Parliament – but the timetable for it is uncertain and it could take some years for the law to change.
However, there are things that couples can do to increase their protection, such as drawing up a Cohabitation Agreement.
A Cohabitation Agreement allows a couple to regulate their financial arrangements both during and following a separation which help to record a couple’s intentions. Other important steps could include addressing what happens if one partner dies, such as making a Will and taking out life insurance.
Victoria says: “While such steps can provide some security, we need to see a change in the law to properly address the issue. In the meantime, cohabiting couples need to be aware of the reality of the situation and think carefully together about what steps they want to take.”