Theresa May recently announced that all couples in England and Wales will be given the right to choose whether they would like to enter a civil partnership, which, for heterosexual cohabitating couples, is “infinitely preferable to unthinking and risky cohabitation”, according to the Marriage Foundation.
The proposed change follows a high-profile case when mixed-sex couple, Rebecca Steinfield and Charles Keidan, argued that they should be able to enter a civil partnership and that the current law is discriminatory (Steinfeld and Keidan v Secretary of State for International Development). The government recognised there was an ‘imbalance’ by limiting civil partnerships to same-sex couples, and that it was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Theresa May concluded that “by extending civil partnerships, we are making sure that all couples, be they same-sex or opposite-sex, are given the same choices in life.”
A civil partnership is a legal contract which gives a couple certain rights and responsibilities in respect of each other and will legally place them on a similar footing to those couples who are married. Civil partnerships came into force in 2005 (Civil Partnership Act 2004) to allow same-sex couples similar legal protection, such as property or inheritance rights, as a married couple.
One of the main reasons that some couples choose not to marry is because they believe marriage is an institution which doesn’t reflect their relationship due to its roots in traditional gender roles. Having the option to enter a civil partnership will give those less conventional relationships, such as a cohabitating couples, legal recognition without having to enter into a marriage.
If your relationship breaks down, you will apply for divorce (if ending a marriage) or dissolution (when ending a civil partnership). In both cases, the parties are required to have been married or in a civil partnership for at least one year. Although adultery is one of the five grounds to prove a relationship has broken down during a divorce, this is not a recognised reason for ending a civil partnership. However, unreasonable behaviour, desertion, two years apart (with written agreement from both parties) or five years apart (with no consent) hold the same for a dissolution of a civil partnership.
There are currently 3.3 million cohabiting couples throughout the UK who wrongly believe they possess similar rights as those couples who are married or in civil partnerships. Many legal protections, such as inheritance, pension and property, have been highlighted as some of the areas which cohabiting couples have come to realise they are not entitled to. By allowing mixed-sex couples to form a civil partnership, cohabitating couples will have the choice between both legal commitments which would provide them with greater financial security.
Pension Specialist for Royal London, Helen Morrissey, explained the hardship that cohabiting can cause for families when unexpected events happen in their life:
“Cohabitating couples can live together for many years and raise families together and yet if one partner died, the surviving partner could find themselves facing severe financial hardship as they find that are not entitled to the same pension death benefits or inheritance tax treatment.”
These changes have been promised to happen “as swiftly as possible” according to Minister for Equalities, Penny Mordaunt.
If you are in a cohabitating couple, it is crucial that you get expert legal advice to ensure that your wealth is protected in the event of a relationship breakdown. If you and your partner have children, it is even more important that you understand your legal standing as a cohabitee. For first-class family law advice on cohabitation, please contact Lindsay Jones via our contact page.