Family justice organisation Resolution warns hundreds of thousands of couples are at risk if they split, as this modern attitude toward marriage is at odds with current law. Official figures from the Office of National Statistics show that one in eight people in England and Wales are in a cohabiting relationship, and that this is the fastest growing family type (more than doubling from 1.5m to 3.3m couples since 1996).
A persistent belief in ‘common-law marriage’ is often at the root of this misunderstanding, with many thinking they gain rights similar to married couples after living together for a certain amount of time or having children together. A recent ComRes survey showed as many as two-thirds of people in cohabiting relationships were unsure of their legal rights if they were to break up. This widespread misunderstanding often prevents at-risk couples from seeking protection.
In practice, current law does not recognise common-law spouses, limiting what parties are entitled to when the relationship breaks down, particularly in relation to property ownership rights. One party may not be entitled to a share in assets (such as property) even if they have made financial contributions over many years.
For couples who have children together, where one partner has given up work to act as primary carer, the other can walk away from the relationship without having to take any responsibility for a former partner. This situation can lead to severe financial problems, homelessness and debt. Currently two thirds of children are born to unmarried mothers outside of the traditional marriage model.
Highlighting the issue and raising awareness is the first step towards helping these couples protect their families. Speaking on the issue, Margaret Heathcote, Resolution’s National Chair, said:
“As the numbers of cohabiting couples rise, so do the issues that come up when some of those relationships, sadly, break down. Most people have no idea that they are not automatically entitled to make claims like married couples, which can come as a shock when they have been together for many years. Yet, under the current law, family justice professionals often find themselves unable to help.
Our members have also reported a disproportionate impact on women, as many give up work to become primary carer for children or elderly relatives leaving them with nothing if the relationship ends.”
As well as dispelling the myth of ‘common-law marriage’, Ms Heathcote spoke of the need for cohabiting couples to take steps to protect themselves:
“There are a number of options available, including drawing up a cohabitation agreement. Our members often speak to parents of people who are cohabiting, perhaps because they have contributed towards a deposit on a house and want to protect their investment.
This can be a difficult area of the law, and many commonly held misconceptions about money being ring-fenced, or protected, can be wrong.
“Every relationship is different, so anybody who is worried about these issues should seek professional legal advice from a Resolution member, who’ll be able to advise them on the best course of action.”
Rosie and Robert are both in their early 40s and have lived together for nearly 20 years. Robert is the sole earner, bringing home an annual salary of £85k + bonuses, and Rosie is primary carer for their three young children. Their relationship broke down and Rosie moved out of the family home – a property she jointly owned with her partner – and into rented accommodation.
The move caused Rosie to amass substantial rental debt as Robert refused to assist her financially or pay child maintenance. Robert also refused to negotiate on the house, insisting Rosie transfer her half of the property to him.
After months of back and forth, Robert eventually agreed to pay Rosie her half of the house’s valuation, but still refused any additional financial assistance. When the payment from the house arrived, the lump sum payment stopped the housing benefit she had been surviving on. She then used half the sum (£30000) to clear her debt.
Rosie now lives in rented accommodation with care of the children during the week – when she is also working a basic admin job. She receives tax credits and child maintenance to help make ends meet. In contrast, Robert is still living in their family home and earning the same amount, with a generous pension. This position allows him to treat the children with weekends and holidays away.