New rights proposed for co-habiting couples

It is a widely held belief that co-habiting couples (those living together outside marriage without having entered into a civil partnership) enjoy legal rights allowing them to make property claims against one another in the event of separation, similar to claims made by married couples in getting  divorced. People often refer to a “common law marriage” even though such a term has absolutely no legal meaning whatsoever in England and Wales. The legal situation is different in Scotland, where co-habiting couples have enjoyed legal rights upon separation or death since 2006.

It now looks as though this discrepancy could well be set to change – welcome news for the 5.9 million people currently co-habiting in the UK [according to the latest statistics available from the Office of National Statistics in 2012]. The number of people co-habiting has increased dramatically in the past 16 years (the number has almost doubled in this time), meaning that today more than 15% of all families in the UK are co-habiting.

The family law group Resolution (an organisation representing divorce and family law specialists in the UK) is seeking new changes to the law on co-habitation to protect this rapidly-growing part of the population. Resolution has welcomed a recent consultation of MPs on this topic. Of the 157 MPs questioned, 75% believed that legal rights for co-habitees were insufficiently clear, 69% thought that there was a misconception amongst constituents that a “common law marriage” could exist, and 57% advocated that co-habiting couples should be given greater legal protection on separation.

It’s clear that the days when unmarried people living together, were described as “living in sin” are now behind us. A need for change may well be on the agenda for the next election. in September last year the Liberal Democrats agreed a “Cohabitation Rights Policy” which aims to give co-habitees a measure of protection and redress in the event of the relationship ending (whether through separation or intestacy).

In particular, the Lib Dems are proposing that where one co-habitee “has suffered an economic disadvantage or acquired a retained benefit from that relationship”, the family courts could order that any benefit or economic disadvantage is shared between them should their relationship fail . Furthermore, the proposals go on to suggest that when one co-habitee dies, the other would benefit automatically from the deceased’s estate “provided that certain qualifying conditions were met”.

However, rather unusually, under the Liberal Democrats plan couples would apparently be at liberty to simply to opt out of the statutory scheme by joint agreement, which could effectively undermine the whole proposal.

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