The Future Of Cohabitation Law Reform In The UK
Published on 07 March, 2023 | Hannah Durkin
Resolution, an organisation of family law professionals committed to resolving matters in a constructive manner, have voiced their determination to continue to advocate for cohabitation law reform at a conference held at the beginning of February.
My colleague, Laura Guillon, highlighted in her blog Mirror Marriage: Cohabitation and Complexity (https://hallbrown.co.uk/mirror-marriage-cohabitation-and-complexity/) that there has been resistance from the government to interfere with the law on cohabitation; following the recent introduction of no-fault divorce in April 2022, as they explained that this work must conclude before it could consider changes to the law for cohabitees.
However, it seems that this has not deterred family lawyers advocating for cohabitation law reform due to their concerns that many cohabiting couples are unaware of their lack of legal protection in comparison to married couples.
A cohabiting couple is a couple who live together in a romantic relationship but who have not married or formed a civil partnership. According to recent statistics, cohabiting couples are the fastest growing family type in England and Wales and currently represent around 1 in 5 couples.
The big aim for re-energising the campaign for Resolution is to increase public awareness of the lack of legal protection for cohabiting couples and dispel myths such as common law husband and wife; this is a common belief that after a certain amount of time cohabitees are afforded similar rights to a married couple upon the breakdown of a relationship.
On the breakdown of a relationship, cohabiting couples have little automatic protections and are forced to rely on sometimes complex aspects of property law to determine a ‘fair’ split of the assets. Even in death, cohabitees do not automatically inherit on the death of their partner.
Increasingly couples are entering into cohabitation agreements to clarify their assets and intentions before moving in together. However, the lack of public awareness in respect of cohabitees’ rights means that this practice is not common knowledge.
The Future of Cohabitation Law
In August 2022, the Women and Equalities Committee published a report (https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5803/cmselect/cmwomeq/92/summary.html) in which they put forward several recommendations for cohabitation law, with the aim to better protect cohabiting couples and their children financially upon separation, whilst still recognising the social and religious status of marriage.
Some of the recommendations included:
- Launching a public awareness campaign to highlight the legal distinctions between marriage, civil partnership and cohabitating relationships;
- Implementing an opt-out cohabitation scheme, affording legal protections to cohabiting couples similar to those who are married or in a civil partnership, but with the option to opt-out;
- Upon death, enabling surviving cohabiting partners the right to inherit from their partners in the event they die without a Will under the intestacy rules.
Despite government resistance to completely reform cohabitation law, recently there has been positive progress made in respect of extending cohabitees’ rights; for example, the extension of the Bereavement Support Payment and Widowed Parent’s Allowance, which now enables bereaved cohabitees with dependent children eligible for additional financial support.
Given this recent development, it might not be long before recommendations such as those proposed by the Women and Equalities Committee are implemented.