Mandelson And The Benefits Of Late Life Marriage
Published on 28 November, 2023 | Allie Pitchford
Of all the commitments which we may make over the course of a lifetime, marriage is among those which has the greatest significance for ourselves and for those close to us.
That said, it does not appear to carry the same weight as it once did – on the face of it, at least.
During 2020, some 85,770 couples tied the knot in England and Wales, according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in May (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/marriagecohabitationandcivilpartnerships/bulletins/marriagesinenglandandwalesprovisional/2020).
That marked an 80 per cent drop on the number in 1972 (426,241), which was the highest ever recorded in one year.
Even allowing for the fact that many weddings had to be rearranged three years ago as the UK and the rest of the world were subject to restrictions designed to limit the spread of Covid-19, it is a significant reduction.
The last year before the pandemic perhaps provides a better indicator of the overall pattern but that still showed a near 50 per cent fall in just half a century.
As marriage has undeniably declined, more couples have chosen to cohabit.
Further ONS’ data has revealed that cohabitation has in fact doubled over the last 25 years and now accounts for almost one-quarter of all UK couples (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/articles/livingarrangementsofpeopleinenglandandwales/census2021).
Yet there are still those for whom marriage represents something of a gold standard.
If we look beneath the headline figures, for instance, we see that group is largely made up of those people who are middle-aged and older.
Back in 2014, spouses aged 50 and over represented one-quarter of all those married but, if we fast-forward to 2020, we see that proportion had increased to 40 per cent.
I have been reminded of that development while reading recently of the decision by the Labour peer Lord Peter Mandelson to marry his partner of 23 years, Reinaldo Avila da Silva.
In an article for The Times, Lord Mandelson gave an insight into one of the benefits of marriage familiar to couples whether older or not, describing how he “did not realise how much difference being married would make in the emotional comfort and strength it brings” (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/9622ff6a-74ff-11ee-b9bb-a19d1562d9ff?shareToken=8b86069ef7114fbf4936ceaeecc9526a).
Same-sex marriages have only been legal in this country since the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, with the first same-sex ceremonies taking place in March the following year (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2013/30/contents/enacted/data.htm).
In marrying – regardless of how long it took him to do so – Lord Mandelson, who turned 70 last month, is an example of a broader movement.
ONS’ figures actually demonstrate that more over-70s in relationships are choosing to marry.
Whilst the proportion of same-sex marriages in that age group has doubled between 2014 and 2020, it has almost trebled for heterosexuals.
I believe that is partly down to both a desire to provide for their partners and a realisation that they can do so better by marriage than cohabitation.
Despite several attempts to advance private member’s bills through parliament, individuals who cohabit enjoy nothing of the same sort of rights as spouses.
That is the case whether their partners die without making a will or if their relationship falls apart and they wish to make a claim for financial support against their ex.
It is a situation which could, of course, change if Labour has its way.
At this year’s party conference in Liverpool, the Shadow Attorney-General, Emily Thornberry, promised to reform the law and plug what many of her colleagues in the House of Commons consider a substantial gap (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/a1dcc480-67ad-11ee-a4e7-0fb10af55688?shareToken=d1a0cc5f88e03557104da480e4a981a3).
In June, members of the Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee strongly urged the Government to reconsider its refusal to introduce the sort of legal changes now being proposed by Labour (https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/328/women-and-equalities-committee/news/195747/mps-urge-the-government-to-end-delay-on-protections-for-cohabiting-partners/).
Electoral success is never a sure thing and legislation can take time to clear the usual parliamentary hurdles before becoming law.
Therefore, it is far better that unmarried couples do what they can to protect themselves rather than wait for reform to happen.
Arguably the most useful thing is a cohabitation agreement.
Contrary to what some people may believe, the documents do not just determine what happens if a couple splits apart but can provide clarity in the event of death and inheritance.
If they decide to buy property together, the cohabitation agreement can be augmented with something known as a deed of trust.
Should the individuals involved then wish to follow the lead of Lord Mandelson and marry, both documents can also be converted into a pre-nuptial agreement.
Different couples favour different relationship types for different emotional and practical reasons.
It makes perfect sense however they choose to live together to ensure that they take measures in advance to address the potential for bereavement or break-up which is common to all.