Some research has been published as a result of analysis of the 2001 and 2011 censuses, which make interesting reading to family lawyers.
As Family Lawyers, we don’t just deal with divorcing couples, we also deal with a number of unmarried couples whose relationships end. Many people are under the misapprehension that they are “common law husband and wife” but in the eyes of the law, there is no such thing. Those that cohabit have no more rights than two friends who might live together, two family members etc. However, it is right to say that cohabitation is definitely on the increase and we find in our day to day lives, we are receiving more instructions from those who cohabit and have chosen not to marry.
Some research has been undertaken by Doctor Esmee Hanna and Doctor David Grainger, both of Leeds University. They have information from Censuses from 2001 and 2011. Their research reveals a 34% increase in the number of cohabiting couples with dependant children over that period. Their report confirms that cohabiting couples are as likely to have children as those who marry. Their survey revealed that 52% of those surveyed believed marriage is not important, provided that the parents are in a committed, settled relationship. Surprisingly, only 27% of those surveyed for the report by YouGov felt that couples should be married before having children.
The report substantiates our experience that there is a great deal of confusion over what legal rights those who cohabit have and don’t have. Remarkably 21% of those surveyed felt they had the same rights as married couples when it comes to financial matters. Sadly, this is not the case and it is often incredibly difficult trying to sort out the maths following the breakdown of a cohabiting relationship. When a couple divorces, there are statutory provisions laid down in the Matrimonial Causes Act that set out the various matters the Court takes into account when considering what Order should be made. The Court considers all of the circumstances of the case, and gives first consideration to the welfare of any children of the family who are under 18. These factors include:
1. The income, earning capacity, property and other financial resources of the parties;
2. The financial needs, obligations and responsibilities of the parties and the standard of living enjoyed by the family;
3. The ages of the parties and the duration of the marriage;
4. Contributions made by either party;
5. The conduct of each party.
There are no equivalent provisions for cohabiting couples. People may find themselves therefore at the end of a very long relationship, when they have been fully committed to their partner, to simply have to walk away with no financial remedy available to them.There have been various suggestions made as to how the rights of those who cohabit could be improved. However, there is no parliamentary legislation to assist at the moment.
Parties can protect themselves, and enter into “living together agreements”, which set out what is to happen if the relationship ends. Whilst not the romantic of agreements, it is careful planning and consideration during the good times in a relationship, that can save a great deal of money, stress and anxiety should the relationship end.
We have seen an increase in instructions to prepare these agreements. Hopefully, they will just gather dust on a shelf, but they can take the uncertainty out of a relationship and make what is often a sad and difficult time, a little more manageable.
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