For the first time in history, the residents of Downing Street – Prime Minister Boris Johnson and partner Carrie Symonds – are a cohabiting couple. While married couple families remain the most common family household in the UK, cohabiting couples are the second-largest and fastest-growing family type. According to recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), of all opposite-sex couple families, more than one-fifth (20.6 per cent) were cohabiting last year.
The ONS bulletin released in September 2019 – Population estimates by marital status and living arrangements – discovered 61.4 per cent of the population (29.3 million) were living with a partner in England and Wales during 2018. Of these:
Of the five million who were cohabiting and had never married or been in a civil partnership before, 1.95 million were under the age of 30. For this particular age group, this calculated as 61,355 more people compared with the previous year, and nearly 150,000 more than a decade ago.
With an increasing number of people choosing to live together before, or with no intention of, getting married, it is imperative that couples acknowledge the legal implications of cohabitation. In the event of a failed relationship, having had financial commitments to each other as cohabitees means very little when it comes to legal entitlements.
Cohabiting couples do not have the same statutory rights as those who are married in the UK, despite 46 per cent of people in England and Wales believing in ‘common law marriage’. No matter how long a couple essentially lives together ‘as man and wife’, it does not provide cohabiting couples with the same rights afforded to married couples. Financially speaking, neither partner has a legal duty to support the other (apart from claims for the benefit of any children).
Just as there is very little protection for cohabiting couples who separate, there is no automatic entitlement to an estate should one partner die. Under the rules of intestacy, there are no financial provisions for cohabitees. While the surviving person can make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, there is only six months from the date that the grant of administration is issued for the estate.
The Cohabitation Rights Bill, which addresses the rights of cohabiting couples, is still in the early stages of passing through Parliament. If passed, it will offer basic protection to long-term cohabitees through the UK.
As it stands, unmarried couples cannot claim spousal support, however, the Children Act 1989 provides financial provision for cohabitants’ children who are under the age of 18. Separating couples who are looking to resolve property disputes must rely on the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996 (ToLATA). Unlike divorce proceedings where assets are divided fairly equally between both parties, cohabitation cases can result in very disproportionate splits, leaving one party with very little.
To minimise future conflict should the relationship breakdown, couples who are planning to live together should enter into a cohabitation agreement from the outset of their cohabitation. This is a contract in which both parties decide what would happen with their financial responsibilities and assets in the event that their relationship comes to an end. The agreement can include terms such as who pays rent, what happens to joint bank accounts or assets bought while living together, child arrangements, and custody of a pet.
If you are living with your partner or considering moving in, it is crucial you think ahead and protect your interests. Drawing up a Cohabitation Agreement allows you to set out the nature of your financial relationship, ensures you are protected and establishes your rights. For an agreement to be valid:
With years of experience working with unmarried couples, I can help you move forward with your relationship with confidence. Whether you are looking for legal advice around cohabitation, or wish to get a cohabitation agreement in place, I can provide you with professional legal advice today.
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