The rights of cohabiting partners; more movement but still a myth

Ben Stowe comments on the most recent call to update the law to reflect modern relationships but warns, if marriage is not for you and your partner, you might want to consider other options to avoid unnecessary pain.

Earlier this month, the Women and Equalities Committee authored a report on The Rights of cohabiting partners;  the Government was given two months to respond. Cohabitation is the fastest growing family type in England and Wales with around 3.6 million cohabiting couples in the UK in 2021, which is over double that recorded twenty-five years before.

The main thrust of the report is to highlight the lack of legal protection for cohabiting couples, which means in the event of a family breakdown, women in particular can suffer relationship-generated disadvantage. Not for the first time in recent years, it is a call for the law to be adapted to reflect the social reality of modern relationships while still recognising the social and religious status of marriage. The report invites reform on how cohabitants are treated with regards to inheritance and pensions in the event of a partner dying; currently cohabitants do not automatically inherit from their partner. The report is also emphatic in the continued need to dispel the ‘common law marriage myth’ with a recommendation that the Government launch a public awareness campaign to inform people of the legal distinctions between getting married, forming a civil partnership and living together as cohabiting partners. In other words, there is still a need to stamp out the erroneous belief that if you live with someone for a number years, you have the same rights as a married couple. You don’t!

It is perhaps this last recommendation to launch an awareness campaign that drops the heavy hint that in reality, any reform is unlikely to be swift and that there is a governmental duty of care that cohabiting couples need to be aware that unless they are proactive in terms of putting in place other measures to cover assets enjoyed as a family, the end of a relationship, whether by intent or by death, could be very messy indeed.

There are a number of legal measures cohabiting couples could consider to underpin their relationship and protect individual rights and expectations. Consideration for each other in terms of up-to-date wills to reflect your wishes in the event that one of you dies and how you legally hold any joint property, are two basic steps to consider in order to look after each other. One of the areas of family law that can help is a  Cohabitation Agreement. This is particularly relevant for couples with more complex family structures such as those involving businesses, significant assets in the form of trusts or international assets, or indeed for those with the wish to provide for children from previous marriage(s). While it may feel unromantic to discuss the ending of a relationship when you are still at the beginning, experience has shown that a degree of planning at the start can save a great deal of heartache if, for whatever reason, the relationship has to end.

If you are co-habiting and would like to discuss having a cohabitation agreement, please contact me, Ben Stowe, or any member of the LMP team.