When will we see reform to cohabitation laws?

Times are changing but our laws are lagging woefully behind. It is no longer a stigma for couples to live together before they get married, yet our laws do not adequately reflect this shift in society and it fails to protect unmarried couples if they are to separate.

Marriage rates are decreasing, and partners choosing to live together and start a family before they marry is now the norm. For a long time unmarried cohabiting couples have been the fastest growing family type in the UK and according to figures released recently by the ONS, in 2022 there were 6.8 million couples living together but not in a marriage or civil partnership.

If a married couple is to divorce, the statutory framework provides for all the financial circumstances to be taken into consideration with a focus on fairness and the needs of the parties and their children. The stark contrast in the law for cohabitees separating comes as a surprise to many.

Despite publicity campaigns, the myth of the “common law marriage” still seems as prominent as ever. It is a myth – there is no such thing as a common law marriage in our laws. As it stands, there are no laws or frameworks that are specifically tailored to provide rights or protection to unmarried couples when they separate. They are left with the rather inadequate provisions in property law, primarily the Trust of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996. Unlike in a divorce, claims are limited to property; there are no claims available in respect of savings, investments, pensions or income, leaving the financially weaker party vulnerable, which is most likely to be women due to women statistically being far more likely to have time out of employment to raise children.

Surely it is time for change. Those couples choosing not to sign up to the institution of marriage but become equally as financially entwined as any married couple, should be better protected. There should, in my view, be legal consequences for those making the decision to live together. If a couple makes financial decisions together, especially when they are to the financial detriment to one party, the law should offer them fair recourse.  Those wishing to do so could chose to opt out or vary these legal rights, by entering into a formal agreement with each other, such as a Cohabitation Agreement that are currently commonplace – the difference is that instead of opting in to that protection, they must make the active decision to opt out.

I am hopeful of change imminently and support Resolution’s campaign for a reform to Cohabitation Law. Resolution is a national organisation, whose members are made up of professionals working in family law. But, for now, it is as vital as ever to take specialist legal advice if you are unmarried and living with a partner or thinking about moving in together.