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Family Laws - The Rights of Cohabiting Partners

on Monday, 19 June 2023.

The UK Government Rejects proposals for cohabitation reforms once again. The percentage of cohabiting couples who are living together unmarried or not in a civil partnership has risen from 20.6% in 2011 to 24.3% in 2021.

Examining data from the 2021 Census, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) also revealed the increase in cohabitation across all age groups under 85 years, comparing data from 2011 and 2021.

Moreover, the ONS revealed the most notable percentage change in cohabitation amongst people was in those aged 25 to 29 years, with an increase from 56.5% in 2011 to 71.6% in 2021. This is also reflective of the decrease in marriage rates. In 2020, 85,770 marriages were recorded in England and Wales, a reduction of 61.0 per cent from 219,850 in 2019, which is the lowest number of marriages recorded since 1838.

Cohabitation, which is the act of living together as a couple without being married has seen rapid growth however, despite this the legal rights and protections that are available remain very limited to cohabiting couples compared to those who are married or in civil partnerships.

There is a lack of legal protection currently in place that can leave cohabiting partners vulnerable and at risk of financial hardship. For example, if a cohabiting couple split up, there is no automatic right to claim financial support from their former partner. Similarly, if a cohabiting partner dies without leaving a Will, their surviving partner has no automatic right to inherit their possessions.

These unfair rights have led to calls for a reform on laws surrounding cohabitation - to provide greater legal recognition and protection for cohabiting couples. Along with the already established cohabitation agreements, there is another proposal to create a legal status of 'registered cohabitation'. This would give couples and families similar legal rights to those married or in civil partnerships. This could include inheritance rights or the right to claim financial support from a former partner in the event of a separation.

In recent years, there has been growth in cohabitation discussions, research and proposals for reforms. In 2007, The Law Commission concentrated on collecting research on cohabitants and the following issues they face; Wills and inheritance after death, financial and property settlements after separation, and capital awards (such as lump sums and property) for the benefit of children under the Children Act 1989. After publishing their findings in a report, the UK Government announced that their intention was to not take forward any of the recommendations that were made by the Law Commission for reforms.

In  August 2022, the Women and Equalities Committee created a report and called for reform in family law in England and Wales. The Committee were requesting reforms be made in order to protect cohabiting couples, and their children from financial disputes in the event of separation. However in November 2022, the Government response to the Committee's report stated that existing work surrounding the law of marriage and divorce must be finalised first before it can consider making any changes to the law  regarding cohabitees.  Women & Equalities Committees, Chair Rt Hon Caroline Nakes MP commented that "it is deeply disappointing that the Government has closed off the possibility of better legal protection for cohabitating partners" and in "doing so it relies on flawed logic. Weddings law and financial provision on divorce are wholly separate areas of family law. There is no reason the Government should not prioritise law reform for cohabiting partners alongside this".

The Government's response to cohabitation reforms over the last decade, has been slow and inadequate. Surely it is now more important  than ever that the laws are reformed so that England and Wales can demonstrate that they're moving with the times and attitudes towards marriage and family life in the 21st century. Furthermore it would also bring the country more in line with other countries, such as France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where cohabiting couples already have greater legal recognition and protection.

Supporters of these proposals have disagreed with the arguments that new reforms would undermine the institution of marriage, and instead point out that it simply would provide greater legal recognition and protection to cohabiting couples who choose not to marry. It also draws attention to the fact that many cohabiting couples are in long-term committed relationship (sometimes lasting longer than marriages), and therefore should have the same legal protection as those who are married or in civil partnerships. The government need to recognise, develop and modify cohabitation laws to ensure that cohabiting couples and families are not left exposed and at risk of financial difficulty.

It is time for the laws surrounding cohabitation to be taken seriously.

What Can You Do to Protect Yourself?

At VWV we have methods in which we are able to protect you now and for the future. Our Family team is here to help. We can assist with:

  • acting for clients in drafting cohabitation and separation agreements
  • Cohabitation Agreements - This is a document which records arrangements between two or more people who have agreed to live together, as a couple or otherwise. It sets out the parties' rights and responsibilities in relation to the property they live in or intend to live in together. . It can set out how the property is to be held, how other capital and assets are owned between you and how they should be divided in the event that you separate. advising on disputes arising from cohabitation and co-ownership of property
  • acting for Claimants and Defendants in relation to claims under the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996 (TOLATA) to determine property interests
  • TOLATA/Property Disputes - You may face concerns that you have invested money into a property but it is held in your partner's sole name or you may have agreed to joint ownership initially but then over the course of time you believe the share you own has altered. By taking specialist advice at the outset we can work with you to try and reach a settlement outside of Court proceedings which is more cost-effective for all parties.

For more information on the rights of cohabiting partners, please contact our New Enquiries team on 020 7405 1234, or complete the form below.

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