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Common law marriages- are they a thing and will they ever be?

View profile for Rebecca Sowry
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For many years now, the rate of marriages has been steadily decreasing. The most recent statistics of the Institute of Family Studies suggest that the likelihood of an adult never marrying in 2021 was 44% greater than in 1991. With the decline in marriage, more and more people are in long term cohabiting relationships with many giving little thought as to the impacts that could have should the relationship breakdown. There is a common conception that it is fine we are ‘common law partners’ but is that something that exists and if not, what rights do cohabiting couples have if the relationship were to breakdown?

Sadly, no. There is no such thing as a common law partner and upon the breakdown of a relationship, many cohabiting couples have to rely upon the basic principles of property law when it comes to the distribution of assets. This unfortunately can leave one party in a very difficult financial position.

In this day and age, why is this still the case? Well, it is something that for many years, people have campaigned against seeking a change in the law to bring cohabiting couples similar rights to those of married couples. The Women and Equalities Committee in its report of August 2022 called for a change in the family law of England and Wales to better protect cohabiting couples and their children from financial hardship in the event of separation. This looks to be some way off however with the government dismissing proposals in November instead focusing on reforming the law surrounding marriage and divorce before it can consider cohabiting couples. Logic deemed flawed by the Committee’s chair.

So what can you do to protect yourself should the worst happen?

I know it is often deemed unromantic to plan for the breakdown of a relationship however it is important to protect yourself and make sure that your intentions are clear where the law doesn’t. Pre-nups are on the rise so why not co-habitation agreements? It is easy to say this will be yours if something ever happens however when push comes to shove upon the breakdown of the relationship it is a different story altogether. If you are having these conversations anyway, why not put it in writing and then you can get on with your lives hopefully never having to use it but safe in the knowledge that it is there if you need it.

If you have considered the making of a cohabitation agreement or wish to get more information, please contact one of our family law team on 01904 624185. Similarly, if you find yourself in the position whereby your relationship has broken down and you wish to discuss your options, please do get in touch.