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Yet another survey shows common law marriage myth still exists

The urgent need to raise awareness of the fact that partners who live together do not have the same legal protection as married couples has been highlighted by a new survey.

Almost half of people in England and Wales still wrongly believe that cohabiting couples have a ‘common law marriage’ giving them the same rights as married couples.

Worryingly, this figure – 46 per cent – has stayed more or less the same for the last 14 years despite a significant increase in the number of cohabiting couples, up to 3.3 million in 2016 and now the fastest growing family type in the UK.

The study, commissioned by the University of Exeter and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, also found that:

  • People with children are more likely to believe in common law marriage – 55 per cent of households with children hold this view compared to 41 percent without children;
  • Those with religious views – 49 per cent – are more likely than those who haven’t to believe in the concept;
  • Just 28 per cent of people aged between 18 and 24 think cohabitees are protected by common law compared to 52 percent of those aged between 25 and 64.

The findings are perhaps surprising giving that they come in the wake of the government’s decision to extend civil partnerships – bringing the same legal protection as marriage – to heterosexual couples.

“Severe financial hardship for more vulnerable party”

Ann Barlow, Professor of Family Law and Policy at the University of Exeter, says: “The number of opposite sex cohabiting families with dependent children has more than doubled in the last decade. Yet whilst people’s attitudes towards marriage and cohabitation have shifted, policy has failed to keep up with the times.

“The result is often severe financial hardship for the more vulnerable party in the event of separation, such as women who have interrupted their career to raise children. Therefore, it’s absolutely crucial that we raise awareness of the difference between cohabitation, civil partnership and marriage and any difference in rights that come with each.”

Misconceptions

Cohabiting, opposite sex couples often mistakenly think they have the same legal protection and rights as married couples but this is far from the case:

  • They have no automatic right to inherit their partner’s estate when they die;
  • They could be liable for inheritance tax and there is no automatic entitlement to shared property, even if they have been paying the mortgage;
  • They may not be entitled to their partner’s occupational pension if they die;
  • They may not be entitled to the same tax reliefs and exemptions as spouses and civil partners.

Levels of awareness worryingly low

Graeme Fraser, co-chair of Resolution, an organisation of 6,500 family lawyers and other professionals in England and Wales who believe in a constructive, non-confrontational approach to family law matters, said the latest survey underlines the need for urgent legal change.

“Despite the absence of legal protection for cohabitants regularly hitting the headlines, levels of awareness are still worryingly low. This is something Resolution and others have been warning government about for years,” he says.

With cohabiting couples the fastest growing family type in England and Wales, it’s time for the government to grasp the nettle and introduce at least some basic legal rights. Otherwise millions of cohabitants continue to be at risk, and could be left with a nasty shock if their partner passes away, or their relationship comes to an end.”

For more information on this area of the law, and what you can do to protect yourself legally and financially, please contact Wards Solicitors’ specialist Cohabitation Team.

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