The Cohabitation Conundrum (and how to solve it)
In our ever-evolving society it comes as no surprise to anyone that the number of possible relationships we can have with others is vast and it’s definitely no longer possible to sketch out the make-up of a ‘typical’ family. Marriage, same-sex marriage, civil partnership, parents and children, siblings, friends, housemates, the list goes on. Another form of relationship which is rapidly growing in popularity is the couple who chooses to cohabit but not marry. With over 2 million couples in the UK opting to cohabit, it is a scary prospect that a hefty chunk of them believe that their decision to live together affords them protection in the eyes of the law; it does not.
The Common Law Marriage Myth
Contrary to what most of the population believes, there is no such thing as a common law marriage. Many are being swept up in what is known as the ‘common law marriage myth’ (the assumption that if you live together for a certain length of time with your partner you will be treated as if you are married and will therefore enjoy the same legal rights) and as a result are finding themselves in problematic legal situations further down the line. Be it benefiting from retirement plans, inheriting property or dividing property upon separation, it is inevitable that an unprepared cohabiting couple will run into problems. Not only do the adults involved face issues but any children born to unmarried parents who choose not to remain together can face far greater injustice.
In a recent case involving an unmarried couple, NHS worker Jakki Smith was successful in obtaining bereavement damages following the death of her husband due to negligence. A fixed compensation of £12,980 is paid out to the spouse or civil partner of the deceased in a case such as the above, however the same cannot be said for cohabitants. The couple in question had been together for 16 years before Mr Bulloch died and, upon learning that she wasn’t eligible to benefit due to her relationship status, Ms Smith brought an appeal. "If you are living together the Government classes you as a couple for the purpose of payments like council tax and Jobseeker’s Allowance, so why not when it comes to this?” argued Ms Smith. Despite the fact that Ms Smith herself will not benefit financially from the ruling (retrospective payments are not possible) this is clearly a step in the right direction in the fight for greater legal protection for cohabitees.
The Call for Greater Protection
After many years of rejection, The Cohabitation Rights Bill is under scrutiny again in England and Wales. Should it become law, the bill, would provide much needed protection for those who cohabit and English and Welsh law would be on its way to matching the protection seen above the border in Scotland. Resolution (an organisation of 6500 family lawyers and other professionals committed to the constructive resolution of family disputes) do lots of work campaigning for the protection of cohabiting couples and mythbusting the ‘Common-Law Marriage’. Whist Resolution’s final goal is for the law to afford protection to unmarried couples, in the meantime their aim is educate the population of the UK so those who want legal protection know that they need to create this for themselves and put their own measures in place.
Until the law evolves to match the UK’s modern society it is essential that cohabiting couples understand that they are not protected by the law, no matter how long they have lived with one another nor whether they have children. Visiting a solicitor and putting your relationship down in paperwork may not seem like the most romantic of decisions. However, this will ensure that your wishes are met with regards to the important decisions you will make as a couple. Also, making a will and considering a cohabitation agreement are both things to discuss with a legal professional in order to create the protection your relationship deserves.
If this situation sounds similar to your own, don’t hesitate to get in contact for more information! Don’t fall victim to the cohabitation conundrum, get clued up and protect yourself until the law can do it for you. Our family lawyers all follow the Resolution code of conduct and are committed to helping cohabiting couples develop the protections they need!