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Warning Over Common-law Marriage Myth

View profile for Julie Bailey
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Worryingly, thousands of people in the East Midlands who live with their partner but are not married are unaware that they have little or no legal rights should their relationship end.

During Cohabitation Awareness Week (27th November to 1st December) we are seeking to dispel the myth that cohabitants are protected under so-called ‘common-law’ marriage.

The national campaign is being led by Resolution which campaigns for a fairer family justice system. It commissioned a poll of over 2,000 British adults which found that:

  • Two-thirds of people in cohabiting relationships are unaware that there is no such as thing as ‘common-law marriage’ in this country
  • Four in five cohabitants agree that the legal rights of cohabiting couples who separate are unclear
  • Seventy-nine per cent of the public agree that there is a need for greater legal protection for unmarried couples upon separation
  • Eighty-four per cent of the public agree that the Government should take steps to ensure unmarried cohabiting couples are aware that they don’t have the same legal protection as married couples.

On 22nd November 2017 Caroline Lucas MP also tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament urging the Government to act upon Resolution's proposal that cohabitants meeting eligibility criteria indicating a committed relationship have a legal right to apply to the courts for certain financial orders if they separate.

As the law currently stands, partners are not entitled to financial support even if one partner – often the mother – has given up or reduced work to raise children. This means that person could be left with no financial security, without a home and with no access to pensions or savings.

This is despite the fact that living together (or cohabiting) is becoming more common. There are 3.3 million cohabiting couples in the UK - one family in five – making it the fastest growing family type.

There are many reasons couples may choose not to marry; however, most don’t realise that they are leaving themselves in a precarious situation.

Sadly, as a family law team we are witnessing an increase in the number of cases involving cohabiting couples, and as English law now stands, a cohabiting partner has no automatic claim for example on the property they live in if they split up. This can put the weaker member of a couple at a disadvantage.

Until the law changes there are several ways couples can protect themselves and their family:

 A cohabitation agreement will set out both partners’ intentions around property, finances and how they would support their children if they separate.

If acquiring property jointly, ensure both names are on the deeds to the house, and enter into a declaration of trust if parties intend to own in unequal shares.

Taking out life insurance and creating a will are also recommended. These are standard ways to document a couple’s intentions, but everyone is different, so couples should seek professional advice.