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Should civil partnerships be an option for cohabiting heterosexual couples?

The Government is coming under increasing pressure to look at the future of civil partnerships and consider whether they should now be an option for heterosexual as well as same sex couples.

Despite a recent high profile court case which saw Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan narrowly lose their latest battle for the right to enter into a civil partnership, the focus remains on how much longer the current situation can fairly continue.

Secure legal recognition

The couple argue that although they do not want to get married, they want secure legal recognition of their relationship, in terms of property rights and exemption from inheritance tax, but are prevented from this because the Civil Partnership Act 2004 says that only same sex couples are eligible.

Whilst marriage is now available to same sex and opposite sex couples, the same is not true of civil partnerships and although three High Court judges agreed this was a potential breach of Ms Steinfeld and Mr Keidan's human rights, they also maintained the Government needed more time to decide on the future of civil partnerships.

Move with the times?

Almost 77,000 people have now signed a petition in favour of civil partnerships being made available to all.

Cohabitation is the fastest growing form of family in the UK. There are almost three million cohabiting opposite sex couples and around a third of them have children. Yet many of these choose not to go down the marriage route for a variety of reasons which leaves them without the legal protection that being married gives.

Rebecca Steinfeld and Mr Keidan, who have a child together, object to the "patriarchal baggage" of marriage and say the current law is full of discrepancies.

Ms Steinfeld says: "We met in 2010, became engaged in 2013, and together we were involved in the fight for same-sex marriage within our community. It is fantastic social progress that couples can now marry regardless of sex or sexual orientation.

"We've been left, however, with a hangover from this important reform: Marriage is available to both same-sex and mixed-sex couples, but civil partnerships are currently only available to same-sex couples. This limits the choice for mixed-sex couples, like us, who want to form a civil partnership - an institution that would provide the same legal protections as marriage.

"The current system doesn't make sense and needs to be brought into line with places such as Holland and New Zealand where couples can choose between marriage and civil partnership.

"Opening civil partnerships to all would bring the law up to date with the reality of family life: three million cohabiting couples with two million dependent children, all of whom currently lack the protection of marriage and choice of civil partnership."

Common law misconception

Although many people believe cohabiting couples have protection in common law, in actual fact they have none of the legal rights of married couples.

For example, you could be liable for inheritance tax and there is no automatic entitlement to shared property, even if you have been paying the mortgage.

But there are things you can do to protect yourself. For example, cohabiting couples can enter into a cohabitation agreement setting out the ownership of assets, dealing with financial arrangements during cohabitation and stating how the finances will be dealt with upon separation.

Cohabitants can also jointly own property and enter into a declaration of trust setting out their respective shares in the property, but on separation their circumstances will not be considered in the same way as spouses.

Wards Solicitors has recently written several articles on cohabitation including - Proposed Legal Changes For Cohabitants - Are They For Me? and Rise of Cohabiting Couples Sparks New Demand for Legal Change