While wedding bells will soon be chiming for Prince Harry and his bride, many others in the UK appear less willing to marry.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported the number of cohabiting households has more than doubled in the past 20 years, with 3.3 million in 2016 compared to 1.5 million in 1996*. So 6.6 million individuals are sharing family and financial responsibilities, but have no legal framework to fall back on if things go wrong.
Jakki Smith recently won a landmark victory in the courts, when awarded bereavement damages by the health authority, which admitted its negligence contributed to the death of her long term partner. Had she been married, she would have had an automatic entitlement. Similarly Denise Brewster had a long legal battle to win a dependant’s pension from her late partner’s pension scheme.
Family lawyers are becoming increasingly concerned at the consequences of long term relationship break up and are asking policy makers to consider creating similar rights to those enjoyed by married couples.
Day to day, most couples who cohabit miss out on tax breaks and pension benefits available to those who are married.
If things go wrong they have little protection against loss of property rights, and no right to maintenance unless a separate legal contract provides for these. They can commit years to running a home, helping build a business, subsidising the other's lifestyle, having children together but still be left with nothing.
Despite many efforts to dispel the myth of the common law spouse, it lives on. It is a fantasy which can have devastating consequences for one or both parties, not just on relationship break up but also in the event of ill health and death.
Here are some examples of how cohabitants are disadvantaged:-
In sickness and in health
Given these disadvantages of long term cohabitation, it is perhaps surprising that more are opting for this informal arrangement over marriage. The myth of the common law spouse has a lot to answer for and unlike the tooth fairy and Father Christmas it is not just harmless fun.
Director of Public Policy, LEBC
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* ONS Families and Households Survey 2016Back to News & Views