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Calls for More Legal Rights for Cohabiting Couples


In the UK, cohabitation continues to grow in popularity, with many couples in the country choosing to live together instead of getting married or becoming civil partners.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of cohabiting couples in England and Wales increased by around 144% between 1996 and 2021 from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.6 million.

However, cohabiting couples have far less protection under the law than civil partners or people that choose to marry and, while many believe they will be entitled to a division of assets on separation similar to that on divorce, this is not the case.

Cohabiting couples currently have little legal protection when they separate, with no safety net legislation in place to protect those left vulnerable on relationship breakdown.

Cohabiting Couples’ Legal Rights

Last November, collaborative family law group Resolution commissioned research specialists Whitestone Insight to undertake a poll to gauge the general public’s awareness of cohabitees’ rights.

Their research found that only 35% of the population know that cohabitees have little or no legal rights compared to married couples, with women more likely than men to be aware of the paucity of those rights.

Among cohabiting couples themselves, almost half (47%) are unaware they have little or no legal rights compared to married couples.

Currently, the best way for cohabiting couples to protect themselves if their relationship breaks down is by making a cohabitation agreement.

This is a legal document made between couples who live together that sets out arrangements for finances, property and children if the relationship ends. Both same-sex and heterosexual couples can make a cohabitation agreement, which can be reviewed and updated as often as required.

Cohabitation Agreements

Cohabitation agreements help avoid disagreements and prevent difficulties if unmarried partners separate by setting out exactly who is entitled to what. This can include:

  • Property that is already owned by either cohabitee.
  • Property bought whilst living together.
  • Deposit on a home.
  • Wills and inheritance.
  • Bank accounts and money.
  • Pensions.
  • Other assets, such as cars and jewellery.

Specialist legal advice is vital. Cohabitation agreements are only legally binding if drafted and executed properly and there has been full disclosure about assets.

If you are thinking of moving in with a partner, or you are already cohabiting and want more information about how to protect yourselves legally, get in touch with Russell & Russell.

Our specialist family lawyers have extensive experience drafting cohabitation agreements to ensure they fit your needs and guarantee you the highest level of protection possible.

To speak to one of our family law solicitors who specialises in cohabitees’ rights, call us on 0800 103 2600 or make an online enquiry.

Cohabitation Law Reform

The vast majority of those surveyed by Whitestone believe that a change in the law is required, with 74% of cohabitees agreeing that “the current laws surrounding cohabitation are unfit for today’s modern society”.

This desire for change is reflected in the sentiment of the wider public, with only 31% of the population wishing to maintain the current legal framework for cohabitees (37% of men and 25% of women).

Public opinion is divided as to whether cohabiting couples should be given the same rights as married couples, with 45% (49% of women) agreeing that this should happen, and 40% of respondents opposing such a move.

However, with more than eight in ten (83%) respondents to the survey believing the number of cohabiting couples will increase over the next decade, it is clear that action needs to be taken to shore up the rights of cohabitees.

The results of Whitestone’s research have led Resolution to call for more rights for unmarried couples.

Jo Edwards, Chair of Resolution’s Family Law Reform Committee, said: “Resolution members are committed to ensuring that all people going through relationship breakdown, including those in an unmarried relationship, are treated fairly and in a way that doesn’t cause financial hardship.

“But, as the law stands, millions of people leaving cohabiting relationships are excluded from accessing the sort of support and legal protections that would go a long way to making the process clearer and fairer for everyone.

“This research has a very clear message – that many people do not want to get married or feel unable to do so. Those choices – or lack of choices – should not exclude them from legal protection if their relationship comes to an end.”

Dr Andy Hayward, Associate Professor in Family Law at Durham Law School, Durham University said: “Cohabitation reform must be taken seriously.”

“It’s alarming that so many couples find themselves without any support from the law.

“Merely living together does not create legal entitlements, yet the common law marriage myth is widespread and endures with potentially devastating consequences for people and families where relationships end,” he continued.

“It is time for society to confront the reality of modern families and offer cohabiting couples the basic legal protections they deserve.”

Resolution’s Family Justice Campaign

Recommendations for a review of the law relating to cohabitees rights is the cornerstone of Resolution’s ‘Vision for Family Justice’ campaign the collaborative law group launched last year to mark its fortieth anniversary.

Resolution-accredited lawyers identified the need for the government to recognise the changing face of families by reforming the law relating to married couples on separation as a priority.

As a result, the organisation of collaborative lawyers has called for a legal framework of rights and responsibilities when couples who live together split up, to provide some legal protection and secure fair outcomes at the time of a couple’s separation.

In the document, Resolution makes several suggestions for reform, including:

  • Proposals that cohabitants meeting eligibility criteria indicating a committed relationship would have a right to apply for certain financial remedies orders if they separate.
  • The court should be able to make the same types of orders as they do currently on divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership, but on a very different and more limited basis.
  • Cohabitants should be able to apply for maintenance for a limited period to reflect the economic advantages or disadvantages caused by the relationship which could not be accommodated by other types of orders.

Cohabitation Agreement Solicitors

Living together is often viewed as a less formal arrangement than marriage, but it can have its drawbacks.

Cohabiting couples have far less protection under the law than married couples if they decide to split up.

If you’re thinking of moving in with your other half or are already living together but want to protect yourselves legally, get in touch with Russell & Russell.

Our family lawyers have extensive experience in cohabitation agreements and will ensure they are drafted to suit your particular needs.

All Russell & Russell’s family solicitors are specialists in their field and adhere to the Resolution code of conduct. We can guide you through the complexities of family law, helping you make the right decisions to ensure you and your family’s well-being.

For more information on how we can help you with your cohabitation agreement, or advice on any other area of family law, click here, call us on 0800 103 2600 or make an online enquiry.

Please note that this article is meant as general guidance and not intended as legal or professional advice. Updates to the law may have changed since this article was published.

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