• April 20, 2024
 Calls for cohabitation reform prompts legal sector to warn of ‘risks of living together’ for unwed couples

Calls for cohabitation reform prompts legal sector to warn of ‘risks of living together’ for unwed couples

After calls for a cohabitation reform, recently rehashed by Labour MP Emily Thornberry, concerns have been raised in the legal sector about the ‘lack of formal agreement’ between unwed couples who choose to live together. 

Many couples choose to live together without getting married first, but legal experts have cautioned co-habiting couples about the ‘dangers of not having agreements in place’ prior to moving in to a shared property. The risks aren’t exclusive to younger age groups with representatives from Clifton Ingham saying there are ‘potential issues with living together across all age groups’.

Thornberry claims she wants to make ‘significant changes’ to laws around cohabitation this year. The reforms have gained momentum over recent years, prompting the UK parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee to advocate for changes that align with the evolving nature of modern relationships.

Cohabitation, referring to unmarried couples sharing a household, has seen a significant rise in popularity. 1 in 4 unwed couples are now sharing a household.

Clifton Ingram have said that ‘not enough is being done to raise awareness of the risks associated with cohabiting unmarried couples, which may negatively impact women and children the most’.

This comes after reviewing data which shows cohabitation has seen a significant rise in popularity, with 1 in 4 unwed couples now sharing a household, an increase from 20.6% in 2011 to 24.3% in 2021 across all age groups under 85.

The firm wants to make couples aware of the ways cohabiting couples are commonly impacted, in comparison to married couples, which include:

  • Cohabiting partners cannot claim ownership of each other’s property in the event of a breakup.
  • Cohabiting partners cannot claim spousal support if the relationship breaks down.
  • Cohabiting couples won’t inherit anything from a partner unless specified in a will.
  • Cohabiting couples do not have automatic right to benefit from their partner’s pension unless they are named formally as a ‘nominated beneficiary’.
  • Fathers do not automatically have parental responsibility for their children unless they are married to the mother.

Rashi Gandhi-Dawson, Senior Associate at Clifton Ingram, said:

“Marriage offers legal and financial security, simplifying asset division and estate planning, unlike cohabitation.

“Any reform of the law will take time. In the meantime, we’d urge couples to consider putting a cohabitation agreement in place. Without this, there’s no straightforward fallback, disproportionately affecting women with children after relationship breakdowns. There’s also the option of adding a cohabiting partner into a will.”

This may see said ‘cohabitation agreements’ become more common practice as marriage rates drop and more couples choose to live together for a number of years prior to getting married. Although common law rights come into place after a certain period, a formal agreement would act as a more fool proof form of insurance. This could lead to a change in landscape within family law practice and greater education for the public on their rights as a cohabiting couple.

In 2022, the UK government rejected a call to reform the law for cohabiting partners. Clifton Ingham say hat ‘continued and improved public awareness and advocacy efforts are important to bring about change in this area of the law’.

Issues around property and child support may be difficult to solve in the event of a break-up, with Gandhi-Dawson citing an example: 

 “Take party A (a woman in her late 50s-early 60s) who has been living with her partner, party B, for over thirty years in a property which is in his name. They have two children over the age of 18 who live independently. She gave up a high-flying career to take care of their children and run the household so doesn’t have a steady income of her own. Party B has a high income.

“They now come to separate, so where does she stand? She cannot rely on the same legal provisions as married couples and there is no obligation on party B to support her financially. If she wishes to make a financial claim against him, she can only do so under property law (Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996), but the process is typically long and costly.

“Marriage offers legal and financial security, simplifying asset division and estate planning, unlike cohabitation.

“While married partners share financial responsibilities, cohabiting couples face potential disputes when combining or separating finances. Cohabitants may also encounter ambiguity in parenting rights, requiring active steps for parental responsibility, and lack legal protections enjoyed by married couples, raising concerns about child support.”


Eve Tawfick, Editor

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