Latest ONS UK Families Trends Offer Insight To Family Experts

The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) report on ‘Families and Households in the UK: 2019’ makes insightful reading for the family law community which highlights the changing trends in Brits’ living arrangements, including families. 

Family professionals discuss the ONS’ insights and give their views of what it could mean for family law. 

Deborah Jeff, Partner and Head of Family at Seddons, comments: 

“The survey results are clear that the majority of families with dependent children are either married or in a civil partnership. Of those who are not, many still choose to live together. Of those cohabiting couples, the statistics show that same sex couples are increasingly choosing to marry rather than cohabit now the law enables them to do so. That gives them greater legal protection in terms of their contribution to family life being recognised and rewarded if the marriage were to end. But it still leaves the cohabiting couples choosing not to marry, and whether same sex or not, unprotected to a large extent if the relationship were to end. So, the message to the government is unchanged; don’t kick into the long grass any longer the need to legally and financially protect those who for whatever reason choose to live together outside of marriage or a civil partnership. They are not a secondclass family unit and deserve legal protection in the same way as the unions of marriage and civil partnership”. 

Roopa Ahluwalia, Family and Matrimonial Partner at BDB Pitmans: 

“The latest ONS statistics show a changing trend in household composition. Over the last decade the number of cohabiting couples with dependent children has increased by more than a quarter; however, these couples are not afforded the same legal rights as married couples. As this household set-up becomes more and more common, couples need to ensure that they are protected in the eventuality of a relationship breakdown or in the case of bereavement. 

In the last twenty years, the fastest growing type of household is that which consisted of more than one family.  This must largely be down to the increased cost of housing.” 

Jo Edwards, Partner and Head of Family at Forsters LLP, adds 

“The benefits of multi-family households can be both practical (including assistance with child care and day-to-day support for older generations) and financial (with living costs generally split between more people).  As issues with housing affordability and inter-generational fairness show no sign of abating, it is ever more likely that multi-family households will continue to grow.    

However, people embarking on multi-family living (related or not) must give the arrangements due thought.  Who owns the property and how will bills be shared? What happens if there is a dispute over property ownership, either during their lifetime or when one party passes away? It is likely that a cohabitation or nuptial agreement, declaration of trust or will (or a combination of those things) will have a valuable role to play, to ensure families can navigate disagreements smoothly”. 

It is likely that uptake of civil partnerships among same-sex couples will continue to decline.  Later this year, the government will introduce civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples, correcting a legal anomaly that arose after the introduction of same-sex marriage. In light of their waning popularity amongst same-sex couples, it will be interesting to see whether there is any material uptake of civil partnerships amongst opposite-sex couples (and whether they regain popularity among same-sex couples) from when they come in on 31 December.   

However, this still does leave exposed the many couples in cohabiting relationships, who continue to have limited legal rights on the breakdown of their relationship (and to be treated less favourably than married or civil partnered people on the death of one of them)”. 

 Harry Golding, Solicitor at Thomson Snell & Passmore, further adds: 

“These statistics confirm the trend seen over recent years, by which the proportion of unmarried cohabiting couple families continue to rise, while the proportion of married couple families decreases. This is worrying from a legal perspective as, unlike married couples, cohabiting couples are afforded no special status under the law of England and Wales. The very limited financial remedies that might be available on the breakdown of a cohabiting relationship are borrowed from other areas of the law and are often very complex and disproportionately expensive to resolve, even in situations where one of the parties has made significant career or financial sacrifices for the sake of the relationship. 

Despite some calls in the legal sector for this situation to be remedied, it looks unlikely that this will happen any time soon. We therefore recommend that any couples who do make the choice to cohabit seek legal advice early in the relationship to discuss the possibility of an express cohabitation agreement.” 

Read the latest ONS release here. 

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