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/ 15 Aug 2022

Recommended reform for unmarried couples

On 4th August 2022, the Women and Equalities Committee released a report with recommendations to reform the law around cohabitation. Partner Liz Francis provides an overview of the report here.

If you would like more information on cohabitation and/or your associated rights, please do not hesitate to contact a member of our Family Law team who would be happy to assist.

Liz Francis

Managing Partner

Joint Head of Family & Divorce

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Cohabiting couples are on the rise

The number of couples who have chosen cohabitation over a marriage or civil partnership has more than doubled since 1996, and now sits at 3.6 million couples in the UK. Due to this significant rise, it is incredibly important that the law surrounding cohabitation is re-addressed and suits modern standards.

What rights do unmarried / cohabiting couples have when their relationship breaks down?

Married couples and civil partnerships benefit from various rights and protections when it comes to death and divorce, whereas cohabiting couples aren’t offered the same, or even a similar, level of protection in the event of death or relationship breakdown.

Where a relationship ends and the couple are not married, there is no presumption that the couple’s assets should be divided (as is the case for married couples), and broadly speaking neither party has an automatic claim against the other’s assets. There is no provision for spousal support and no provision for sharing any pension. The result is that the financially weaker partner in a cohabiting relationship is always left at a disadvantage and can left be in an incredibly vulnerable position.

For married couples, when one spouse dies, the surviving spouse will automatically inherit if there is no will stating otherwise. If the couple have children, this will be limited to the statutory legacy (currently £270,000), their spouse’s personal possessions, and 50% of any remaining assets, and the children will inherit the remainder.  This is not the case with unmarried couples; if one partner dies the other is left trying to fight for their house (if not held as joint tenants), car, and their partner’s pension. Further, whereas married couples can pass their assets to their spouse without this being subject to inheritance tax (and indeed, spouses can pass on any unused nil rate band), the same is not the case for unmarried couples, who will often find they are faced with a large inheritance tax bill.

For more information on the key differences between married and unmarried couples, take a look at our blog here.

What does the Women and Equalities Committee report recommend?

The report recommends that the government should revise cohabitation law to ensure that unmarried couples will receive the same (or similar) benefits and treatment as married couples and civil partners, both in terms of death and separation, clear instructions on how pensions schemes should treat surviving partners, and amendments to the inheritance tax scheme. The report also encourages the government to launch a public awareness campaign to illustrate the legal distinctions between marriages, civil partnerships, and cohabitants. Within this is the need to make the public aware of the various religious wedding ceremonies that do not comply with the formal requirements. Such ceremonies are of no legal significance and do not create a legal marriage. Many family practitioners will have come across a client who is shocked to be advised that they are not actually married and hence have none of the claims that they had expected. The report further confirms, as we all know, that the ‘common law marriage myth’ persists.

Anything to highlight the real injustices that can occur is to be welcomed. However, we must hope that the government’s response will be followed by some action to address the problems which we all know have been ignored for too long.

The Women and Equalities Committee’s report and recommendations can be viewed in full here.

How can Hanne & Co help?

If you would like more information on cohabitation and/or your associated rights, please do not hesitate to contact a member of our Family Law team who would be happy to assist on 020 7228 0017.

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