A recent study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has shown that cohabiting couples represent nearly 18% of the population. According to the data released cohabiting couple families are the fastest growing family type in the UK. The latest statistical bulletin, Households and Families, showed that cohabiting couple families in the UK have doubled from 1.5 million families in 1996 to 3.3 million families in 2016. The rise has caused a number of family law experts to argue that this is further proof that the law on cohabitation needs to catch up with modern British society.
Nigel Shepherd, Resolution Chair, said: ‘These ONS figures are further proof that more and more couples are choosing to live together and bring up their children without marrying. Sadly, some of those relationships will come to an end at some point. This is a feature of our modern society that is here to stay and unfortunately current cohabitation law is failing to provide them with the rights some of them mistakenly think they have. Rather than ignoring these 3.3million families, our lawmakers must respond and introduce safety net legislation that will provide legal protection and fair outcomes at the time of a couple’s separation.’
Under current cohabitation law, there is little legal protection for cohabiting couples in the event of death or relationship breakdown, although there is greater financial protection for the children’s benefit. This can have a major and unexpected emotional and financial impact. If you are currently cohabiting or thinking about cohabiting, you may wish to enter into a Cohabitation Agreement to protect your interests and to formalise each party’s financial rights and responsibilities.
A Cohabitation or Living Together Agreement can be recognised by the Courts provided that it is properly prepared and executed. It can regulate their affairs in relation to money, property, and children issues, during the time that they are living together and can also deal with what will happen if they were to split up. Each party needs an independent solicitor but the negotiations and discussions can hopefully be conducted in a friendly and non-hostile way. Negotiations can take a number of different forms, they could be directly, through correspondence, at mediation or at roundtable face to face meetings with each of you and your solicitors present.
Currently unmarried couples who have not formalised their rights and interests in a Cohabitation Agreement have very limited rights to claim an interest in property belonging to the other individual on relationship breakdown. There are exceptions to this in certain circumstances, such as if they have acquired a beneficial interest in a property under the terms of a trust.
Cohabitants often believe that rights arise from a long relationship but this is incorrect. Instead of statutory rights, cohabitants must rely on the complex rules of property law which are beset with technicalities. Whilst the courts may take the length of relationship and other issues into account when quantifying shares, the claim to a share is a property and trust law based claim. If you are in any doubts as to your rights you should certainly take legal advice, and individuals are encouraged to take precautionary measures if they believe it is something that should be addressed. It can be difficult to raise the prospect of a cohabitation agreement whilst you are in a relationship and this should always be done with the utmost sensitivity by any legal representative.
Tom Brownrigg (Solicitor)
Kawsar Ahmed (Paralegal)