London, UK. 7th December 2023 – With the New Year nearly upon us it’s a time when many couples make a decision to take their relationship to the next level. For some this means a proposal of marriage but an increasing number of couples are opting to live together as cohabitees rather than officially tying the knot. What many don’t realise is that the common law spouse is a complete myth and cohabiting couples have very limited legal rights should the relationship go wrong. What cohabitees should really be wishing for this Christmas is a Cohabitation Rights Bill.
The proportion of people in the UK cohabitating increased from 20.6% in 2011 to 24.3% in 2021. In 2023, 3.6 unmarried couples live together compared with just 1.5 million in 1996. Yet, while more couples are choosing to cohabitate rather than marry, in England and Wales, cohabitating couples still do not have the same rights and protections as those that are married. When these relationships break down it doesn’t just lead to unhappiness, it can lead to severe financial problems.
What can go wrong? Imagine a couple, let’s call them John and Debbie, are expecting their first child. John has a well-paid job and owns his own house, so they decide to move in together as a cohabitating couple. Initially everything goes well and Debbie, who also has a good job, pays half the mortgage and contributes to the upkeep of the house. She treats it like their family home.
Ten years down the line the relationship runs into problems and the couple split up. John demands that Debbie leaves the home and there is nothing Debbie can do about it. Despite her financial contributions, she has no legal rights to the property and has no rights to any form of financial settlement. She may be eligible for child maintenance payments but that will depend on their circumstances and child arrangements plans.
This isn’t such an issue in Scotland or Northern Ireland where there are cohabitation protections for couples in committed relationships with children. However, there is no such legislation governing the jurisdictions of England and Wales.
This is why the UK Cohabitation Rights Bill was introduced to the House of Lords in 2019. The legislation proposes to give cohabitating couples some of the same rights as married couples, including the right to apply for a financial settlement if the relationship breaks down and the right to an inheritance from each other.
The Cohabitation Rights Bill aims to give cohabitating couples who have lived together for three years, or have a child together, some of the same rights as married couples including: the right to apply for a financial settlement if a relationship breaks down to redress a financial benefit or economic disadvantage as a result of cohabitation, the right to an inheritance from one another under intestacy rules and the right to apply for a child maintenance order, or a contact order.
Giving cohabitating couple some of the same legal rights as married couple would make it easier for cohabitating couples to settle their financial affairs if their relationship breaks down. Importantly, it would help ensure that children are supported in the event of a separation.
However, the bill’s progress has been delayed several times and there is still no firm date for when it may become law. In November of 2022, the UK government rejected the findings of an enquiry by the House of Commons women and equalities committee recommending better legal protection for cohabitating couples.
A possible theory for the slow progress of the bill is cost. Creating a new legal framework for cohabitation is highly complex.
While it was hoped that the bill would pass in the current parliamentary session, which ends in 2024, there is still no firm date as the government waits for associated marriage and divorce laws to be dealt with first.
Given the unknown timescale for the bill to pass and lack of legal certainty around cohabitation, right now getting specialised legal help is the only way in which cohabitees can protect their interests.
As Vasoulla Constantinou, an experienced solicitor from Tyrer Roxburgh Solicitors, a firm specialising in family law and divorce, explains, a cohabitation agreement is an effective way of speedily resolving cohabitee disputes:
“Before even seeing a lawyer, couples should sit down and agree on who owns what and how their assets should be divided in the event of separation. One partner then gets their lawyer to draw up a cohabitation agreement which is sent to the other party, ideally to their own lawyer. Once both parties are satisfied the agreement, it can be witnessed and signed.”
A typical cohabitation agreement can cost upwards of £599, but as Vasoulla Constantinou warned not having one in place could cost even more in the long run. So if you are considering moving in together in the New Year, add a Cohabitation Agreement to your Christmas list.