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Cohabiting: check the law

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Cohabitation Awareness Week, Resolution, cohabiting couples, married couples, legal differences, change neededIn many cases, the current lack of protection affects women more than men.

Millions of unmarried couples living together are unaware that they are at severe financial risk as a result of the current legal system, national family justice organisation Resolution has warned.

As the fastest growing family type in the UK, the number of unmarried couples living together – or cohabiting – has more than doubled from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million in 2017.

However, a new ComRes poll reveals a significant lack of understanding about the rights these couples have should their relationship end.

The poll of over 2,000 British adults was commissioned by Resolution, which represents 6,500 family practitioners and campaigns for a fairer family justice system.

It comes at the start of Cohabitation Awareness Week, which seeks to highlight the lack of legal protection available to cohabiting couples.

The ComRes poll found that:

Two-thirds of people in cohabiting relationships are unaware that there is no such as thing as ‘common-law marriage’ in this country;

4 in 5 cohabitants agree that the legal rights of cohabiting couples who separate are unclear;

79 per cent of the public agree that there is a need for greater legal protection for unmarried couples upon separation;

84 per cent of the public agree that the government should take steps to ensure unmarried cohabiting couples are aware that they don’t have the same legal protection as married couples.

Under current law it is possible to live with someone for decades and even have children together and then simply walk away without taking any responsibility for a former partner if the relationship breaks down.

Cohabiting couples can be recognised under Scots Law in some circumstances: if they have children, each cohabiting partner will still have the legal rights and responsibilities of a parent.

The call for reform to extend rights to cohabiting couples is backed by a number of influential individuals and organisations, including Lord Hope of Craighead, former Deputy President of the Supreme Court; Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames; the Law Society; Relate; OnePlusOne and the Family Law Bar Association (FLBA).

Resolution’s chair, Nigel Shepherd, said: “Family lawyers across the country are witnessing an increase in the number of cases involving cohabiting couples, and 98 per cent of Resolution members report having worked with a couple who they have been unable to help due to the lack of legal protection.

“This is frustrating for us as professionals, but that frustration is nothing compared to the potential pain and heartache experienced by someone who thought they were protected by the mythical common-law marriage.”

Yvonne, for example, had five children with her partner of 17 years.

She said: “I was shocked to find out, that after five kids together and being with my partner for more than a decade that I was entitled to nothing when the relationship broke down.

“I was no longer just dealing with a break up – but with the fallout of not being legally entitled to share in any of what I thought were our joint assets.

“I had given up work to raise our children and fill the “traditional” role of mother and wife, as many do, but didn’t know that without being married or having a cohabitation agreement I was completely unprotected.

“Now, when my youngest finishes university I will have to move out of the family home, but I have no independent funds and no pension.

“I’m devastated to have been left in this situation, and think it’s wrong that the law is unable to provide people like me with any support whatsoever.

“I know lots of other women are in similar situations, but for some reason no one is talking about this. Yet tragically, so many people who may one day be affected are completely unaware.”

Shepherd said: “Unfortunately, Yvonne’s story is just one of thousands that family lawyers see every year.

“The sad truth is that, unless they’re prepared to go through a lengthy and potentially expensive court process, many people are simply unable to access a fair settlement.

“Even if they’re emotionally or financially strong enough to do this, they may still be entitled to nothing.”

Until the law is updated, Resolution is urging anyone in a cohabiting relationship to take steps to protect themselves.

These steps could include drawing up a cohabitation agreement which sets out intentions for finances, property and care of any children if the relationship breaks down.

They also advise couples to consider taking out life insurance, and to draw up a will.

“The most important thing is to be aware that you might not have the automatic rights you think you have,” Shepherd said. “Look at the information out there, know your rights, and get yourself protected.”

And, Shepherd said the law needs to change, as these result show it “is falling desperately behind the times.”

This poll, he said, “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.

“In many cases, this lack of protection affects women more than men, as they are still more likely to have taken time off work to raise children.

“The government must listen to the public, legal professionals and a growing number of politicians who all agree that we need reform to provide basic rights to cohabiting couples should they separate.

“Society has changed – it’s time for our laws to catch up.”

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