The lack of rights for cohabiting couples has a big impact on society as well as on the individuals involved and their families. It’s estimated that there are over 800,000 cohabiting couples in London and the South East, of which nearly 300,000 have dependant children. Cohabitation is the fastest growing family type in the UK – and yet it has no legal status. This is why Cohabitation Awareness Week is so important.
A startling lack of legal protection for cohabiting couples
The lack of legal protection for cohabiting couples, all for want of a marriage certificate is startling. While a married, or civil partnered, couple enjoy a wide range of privileges and protections automatically, cohabiting couples who are no less committed to each other are left to construct these protections through a jigsaw of different arrangements – a cohabitation agreement, a will, constant scrutiny of insurance and pension paperwork to ensure nomination forms are properly filled out.
The lack of legal status means that when the relationship breaks down, or if one of the couple dies, there are no automatic protections in place. A cohabitee does not inherit under the rules of intestacy. Unless the couple have up to date wills, the surviving partner will be left with nothing – perhaps forced to litigate to stay in the house they have lived in for years with their partner.
No rights for unmarried partners
If the relationship breaks down, the situation can be just as distressing. The reality of cohabitation is that one partner can decide to leave the relationship and simply walk away with no enforceable responsibilities towards his or her former partner. We see a number of scenarios where this has happened on a fairly regular basis. Frequently, one partner will have sold a property to move in with the other, investing the proceeds into the other partner’s property, but the other property remains in the sole name of the other partner. With no name on the deeds, and without documentation to prove that one partner invested in the property, they face a lengthy and expensive legal process to try and recover their money – with no guarantees.
Although both sides of the relationship are equally at risk, the Resolution survey suggests that it is more likely to be women that lose out. Women frequently find themselves not only without a place to live, but with reduced means of providing for themselves (and often their children) having taken time out of the workplace to raise children.
Cohabitation Agreements are a piece in the jigsaw
A few weeks ago, we published a blog about Cohabitation Agreements. They are a valuable tool for couples who want to make a commitment to each other and share their lives, without taking the step of getting married or entering a civil partnership. Despite the value of cohabitation agreements , a Resolution survey carried out in the last few weeks indicated that only 1 in 5 family lawyers (17%) reported preparing agreements between cohabiting couples on a regular basis. Compare that with the fact that more than 60% of family lawyers reported working with cohabiting couples often, and nearly every lawyer surveyed – 98% – said they had worked with a cohabiting couple who they were unable to help due to a lack of legal protection.
The reality is that a Cohabitation Agreement is only one piece in the jigsaw for couples who choose cohabitation over marriage. As I’ve already mentioned, they need to make sure they have valid and up to date wills. This is important for everyone, but even more so for cohabiting couples. Yet it seems that only 1/3 of us have a will in place in the UK, so it’s very likely that many cohabiting couples do not have this protection in place should one of them pass away.
Many other benefits that married couples take for granted may be available for cohabiting couples, but only if additional paperwork is completed. Pension and death in service benefit is a prime example of this. Although requirements for form filling may discriminate against cohabitees on ground of their marital status and breach their human rights , the legal costs of asserting those rights can be significant.
Resolution is fighting for legal protection for cohabitees – spread the word!
Resolution – the national Family Law organisation I belong to – has joined with a range of organisations in calling for legal protection for these increasing numbers of cohabitees in the event of separation. In the meantime, it’s vital not only for cohabiting couples to make sure they have protections in place should the worst happen, but for us to spread the word about cohabitation. It’s Cohabitation Awareness Week from 27th November to 1st December, so if you know someone who is considering cohabitation, or indeed if you are yourself, make sure you pass on this information so they can take steps to protect themselves.