After years of discussions and debate, the government has finally introduced a law modernising the divorce process so people can divorce without having to blame each other. This has been a significant step forward. However, perhaps the one area that needs the most urgent review is the law dealing with cohabitants’ rights.
Cohabitees are people who live together in a formal relationship but have not entered into a married or civil partnership. The fact that you have been living with someone, even for decades, does not give you any rights in law; you only obtain those rights if you are married or enter a civil partnership.
In August 2022, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee issued a report titled “The Rights of Cohabiting Partners”. This highlights the risks faced by cohabitants when a relationship breaks down or on the death of a partner.
This report particularly highlighted the lack of legal protection on the breakdown of a family and needs to be adapted to the social reality of modern relationships. It was announced recently for the first time that more children have been born to unmarried parents than married parents for the first time in history. There is perhaps no other area of law that needs a more urgent review.
The report called for legislation to be put in place for an opt-out cohabitation scheme, the scheme proposed by the Law Commission in 2007, 15 years ago. It also addressed a report in 2011 dealing with family provision claims for cohabiting partners on the death of another partner. It also addressed survivor’s pensions. Finally, it recommends a public awareness campaign to inform people of the legal distinction between getting married and living together as cohabiting partners.
It remains to be seen whether progress can be made, and we are forever hopeful. For now, it is extremely important for people living together to understand that, unless you have a clear interest in property in which you live, you have no right to support from your partner if you break up, apart from child maintenance, even if you have been together for 20 years. This is vastly different from a marriage break up, where the starting point is an equal division of everything built up during the marriage regardless of whose name it is in.
For now, it is extremely important for people to understand their rights and personal circumstances so they can make informed choices on their future together.