The latest figures released by the Office of National Statistics in their Household and Families Bulletin show that cohabitation remains the fastest growing relationship type. Whilst married couple families remain the most common family type, there are now 3.2 million cohabiting couple families in the UK, an increase of almost 30% in the last decade. Opposite sex cohabiting couple families now account for 17% of all families in the UK, described by the ONS as a statistically significant increase from 14% in 2005. Same sex cohabiting couples have also experienced an increase from 0.3% to 0.5% of all families.
Unfortunately, the majority of people who live together do not realise that cohabitation does not provide them with the same rights as married couples, however long they may have lived together. In a survey carried out by British Social Attitudes, 51% of respondents thought that unmarried couples who live together for some time probably or definitely had a “common law marriage” which gave them the same legal rights as married couples, but this is not the case. There is no such thing as common law marriage in England and Wales.
The rise in cohabitation together with the falling rate of marriage shows that cohabitation is here to stay and the law needs to reflect that. Resolution, the association of family lawyers, released a manifesto earlier this year calling on the Government to reform cohabitation law, amongst other things. There is currently a Cohabitation Rights Bill before Parliament but it is in its very early stages. It remains to be seen how the Government reacts to these latest figures and whether it takes any action to modernise the law.
Currently, if cohabitees want to protect themselves, they should seek advice on drawing up a Cohabitation Agreement setting out who owns what and how any assets are to be divided in the event of relationship breakdown.