This week is Cohabitation Awareness Week, a campaign by national family justice organisation Resolution to raise awareness of the lack of legal protection upon separation for cohabiting couples.
As we have explained here previously, compared to married couples, cohabiting couples have very few legal rights when their relationship breaks down. There is no such thing as a ‘common law marriage’, giving cohabiting couples similar rights to married couples. However, a poll commissioned by Resolution found that two-thirds of people in cohabiting relationships are unaware of this. Considering that there are now some 3.3 million cohabiting couple families in this country, that amounts to a very large number of people who are ignorant as to their lack of rights.
Commenting upon the poll Resolution chair Nigel Shepherd said:
“Today’s poll shows that many still believe in the myth that they will get financial rights through ‘common-law marriage’. This means millions of cohabiting couples are unaware that they don’t have automatic claims, for example on the property they live in, if they split up. This makes it less likely they’ll take steps to protect themselves.”
What steps can cohabitees take to protect themselves? They could enter into a cohabitation agreement, setting out what should happen to their property and money should their relationship break down. If they acquire a property then they should ensure that it is owned jointly and, if it is owned in unequal shares, they can enter into a declaration of trust, setting out what share each party owns.
However, most cohabiting couples do not enter into separation agreements, and very often the property they live in is owned by only one party.
There is a clear need for the law to be changed to provide basic rights to cohabiting couples should they separate. Family Law Cafe therefore joins with Resolution’s call for reform to extend rights to cohabiting couples. As Nigel Shepherd also said: “Society has changed – it’s time for our laws to catch up.”
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