Marriage decline shows importance of cohabitants knowing their rights
Family law

Marriage decline shows importance of cohabitants knowing their rights

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James Harbottle
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Marriage decline shows importance of cohabitants knowing their rights

On the 19th May the Office for National Statistics (‘ONS’) published its latest annual figures for the number of marriages that took place in England and Wales, for the year 2019.

The figures show a continuing decline in marriage rates. There were 219,850 marriages in total in England and Wales in 2019, which is a decrease of 6.4% from 2018.

Marriage rates for opposite-sex couples have now fallen to their lowest level on record since 1862. In 2019, for men, there were 18.6 marriages per 1,000 unmarried men, and for women, there were 17.2 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women.

Commenting on the figures, Dr James Tucker, Head of Health and Life Events Analysis at the Office for National Statistics, said:

“Today’s data show a decline in marriage rates for opposite-sex couples while rates for same-sex couples have remained the same.

“The number of opposite-sex marriages has fallen by 50% since 1972 [when divorce became easier]. This decline is a likely consequence of increasing numbers of men and women delaying marriage, or couples choosing to live together rather than marry, either as a precursor to marriage or as an alternative.”

In fact, figures previously published by the ONS confirm that more couples are choosing to cohabit as an alternative to marriage. Statistics for 2020 showed that in that year 13.1% of the population aged 16 years and over were cohabiting, compared with 11.3% in 2010. Marriage is in decline, and cohabitation is on the rise.

These figures emphasize how important it is that those who choose to cohabit rather than to marry know what their rights are in the event that the relationship breaks down.

No automatic rights for cohabitants cohabitants

In particular, cohabitants must understand that they will not have the same rights as those who choose to marry. There is no such thing as a ‘common law marriage’ – cohabitants will never gain the same rights as married couples, no matter how long their relationship.

Accordingly, a cohabitant whose relationship has broken down will have no automatic right to claim financial provision for themselves from their former partner, in the same way that someone who was married can. The law effectively says that when cohabitants split up each party simply keeps what is theirs.

This can obviously lead to grave financial hardship if all of the assets belonged to the other party, including the home in which the couple lived.

For example, someone who lived with a partner in the partner’s home may find after a long relationship that they have no interest in the property, and are therefore homeless. They will also not be able to claim maintenance or a lump sum of money from the partner, or seek a share of the partner’s pension.

What the law can do for cohabitants

But that is not quite the end of the story. Whilst the law does not give automatic rights to cohabitants, there are some legal steps that a cohabitant may be able to take.

For example, there are certain circumstances in which a cohabitant may be able to claim a share of their former partner’s property, such as where they have made financial contributions towards the purchase or improvement of the property, or where they can show a common intention between the parties that they should acquire a share in the property. These cases are quite complex, and anyone wishing to make such a claim should first seek expert legal advice.

There is another type of claim that a cohabitant can make against their former partner. Where there are children of the relationship, the party with whom the children are living can apply to a court for financial provision for the children, from then other party. This provision could, for example, include the payment of school fees, the payment of a lump sum of money, or even require the other party to provide housing for the children, until they grow up. Again, expert legal advice should be sought before making any such claim.