According to statistics, 3.3 million couples in the UK now cohabit. So, has the UK law adapted to society’s changing attitude towards relationships?
The rights and remedies for married couples
If a couple’s marriage or civil partnership has ended then both are entitled to make financial claims against the other. If an agreement cannot be reached an application can be made to the Court to decide what a fair outcome would be. A Judge must consider various factors such as the parties’ ages, contributions and most importantly the needs of any children. A fair distribution of the assets does not necessarily mean an equal division as this depends on individual circumstances. The Court has the discretion to order the change of ownership of any assets from one spouse to another and make any order that they find appropriate. It is clear that married couples have protection in making these claims, so what rights do cohabiting couples have?
How rights for cohabitees are different
46% of the British public believe that cohabiting couples are entitled to the same rights and remedies that a married couple would have, by virtue of what is referred to as a ‘common-law marriage’. This isn’t the case. Cohabitees have limited protection when it comes to their legal rights in the event of a relationship breakdown. For example, there are no rights for cohabitees in relation to income (except Child Maintenance) or pensions.
When it comes to the family home, much will depend on who owns it. If one of the parties owns the family home in their sole name, then the other party might have to apply to the Court to try to establish an interest in it. This type of claim would need to be issued in the Civil Court and such cases are often complex and expensive. If the parties have children together then some protection might be available under Schedule 1 of the Children Act.
What cohabitees can do to protect themselves financially
Although work is being done to campaign for the protection of cohabitee rights, there is more work to be done. In the meantime, if you are in a cohabiting relationship, or about to move in with your partner, you could consider having a Cohabitation Agreement to set out how assets should be dealt with in the event of separation. In addition, Cohabitees should make a Will to ensure that their partner is provided for on death.