This Commons Library briefing paper provides general information about the number of cohabiting couples, how the law applies to cohabitants, and about the Law Commission’s proposals for reform.
Unless specified otherwise, this paper deals generally with the law in England and Wales. There is also a short summary of the position in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
No legal status for "common law marriage"
Although cohabitants do have some legal protection in several areas, cohabitation gives no general legal status to a couple, unlike marriage and civil partnership from which many legal rights and responsibilities flow. Many people are unaware that there is no specific legal status for what is often referred to as a “common law marriage”. Unmarried couples have no guaranteed rights to ownership of each other's property if they separate or one cohabitant dies. This is the case no matter how long they lived together and even if they had children together.
Number of cohabiting couples
The Office for National Statistics has published annual data on the composition of families and households living in the UK since 1996. During this period, the number of opposite sex and same sex cohabiting couple families has increased, but trends differ between opposite sex and same sex couple families.
How does the law treat cohabiting couples?
This paper sets out information about how the current law affects cohabiting couples in these areas: property rights; housing; domestic violence; inheritance; social security; pensions; taxation; immigration; birth registration; and parental responsibility.
Some cohabitants enter into a cohabitation agreement which can act as encouragement to consider what they would want to happen if the relationship ends.
Law Commission proposals for reform
Financial relief on separation
In July 2007, following consultation, the Law Commission published a report, Cohabitation: the financial consequences of relationship breakdown, which considered the financial consequences of the ending of cohabiting relationships. The Law Commission recommended the introduction of a new statutory scheme of financial relief on separation, based on the contributions made to the relationship by the parties.
The scheme would be available to eligible cohabiting couples. Couples who have had a child together or who have lived together for a minimum period would be eligible. Couples would be able to opt out of the scheme by a written agreement to that effect.
Government response: recommendations not implemented
In March 2008, the Labour Government announced that it would be taking no action to implement the Law Commission’s recommendations until research on the cost and effectiveness of a similar scheme recently implemented in Scotland could be studied. On 6 September 2011, Jonathan Djanogly, then a junior Justice Minister, announced that, having carefully considered the Law Commission’s recommendations, together with the outcomes of research on the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006, the then Government did not intend to reform the law relating to cohabitation in that Parliamentary term.
In a separate report, published in 2011, the Law Commission recommended that some cohabitants should have the right to inherit under the intestacy rules on their partner's death, without having to go to court. This recommendation has not been implemented.
In Scotland, cohabitants may make limited claims against each other either when their relationship breaks down or when a partner dies.
In Northern Ireland, cohabitants have legal protection in some areas. However, they have significantly fewer rights and responsibilities than couples who have married or formed a civil partnership.
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