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15 August, 2022

Women & Equalities commission: end “inferior” protections for cohabiting couples

15 August, 2022

Calls for cohabitation law reform are being led by a group of cross-party MPs who say that cohabiting couples have “inferior” protections to those who are married or within a civil partnership.

The Women and Equalities Committee has published a new report titled “The Rights of Cohabiting Partners”, highlighting the lack of protection against the risks faced by cohabiting couples, with cohabitation being the fastest growing family type in England and Wales. In 2021, there were around 3.6 million cohabiting couples in the UK compared with 1.5 million in 1996.

A summary of the report reads, “Notwithstanding the legal reality, many people believe in the so-called ‘common law marriage myth’, which is the erroneous belief that after a certain amount of time of living together, the law treats cohabitants as if they were married”.

In reality, upon the breakdown of a family, cohabitants “must rely on complex property law and trusts principles”, adding that “Schedule 1 to the Children Act 1989 is outdated, mostly benefits the children of wealthy parents and is in need of reform. On death, cohabitants do not automatically inherit from their partner”.

Many of the risks faced by cohabiting couples affect women in the main. The report continued:

“The lack of legal protection on family breakdown means that women, including women from an ethnic minority background and those who have had a religious-only wedding, can suffer relationship-generated disadvantage.

It is time the law adapted to the social reality of modern relationships while still recognising the social and religious status of marriage.”

The report went on to make several key points and recommendations, including:

  • The Government should legislate for an opt-out cohabitation scheme as proposed by the Law Commission. The Ministry of Justice should commission a refresh review of the recommendations to see if they need updating.
  • Support for the Law Commission’s 2011 proposals concerning intestacy and family provision claims for cohabiting partners. The Committee calls on the Government to implement those proposals. The Government should also publish clear guidelines on how pension schemes should treat surviving cohabitants when claiming a survivor’s pension. The Committee recommends that Ministers review the inheritance tax regime so it is the same for cohabiting partners as it is for married couples and civil partners.
  • Finally, the Government should launch a public awareness campaign to inform people of the legal distinctions between getting married, forming a civil partnership and living together as cohabiting partners.

Reacting to the publication of the report, Graeme Fraser, Chair of Resolution’s Cohabitation Committee, said:

“The lack of rights for cohabiting couples has seen millions of people – often women – at significant financial risk if their relationship ends or their partner passes away. Now is the time for ministers to finally grasp the nettle and reform laws to ensure cohabiting families have better legal protection.

Cohabiting families are the fastest growing family type in England and Wales and yet lack even the most basic legal protections. Ministers have a moral obligation to act now to protect them – otherwise, left unreformed, the current law will consign even more families to misery and dire financial hardship.”

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