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Family law  |  Unmarried Couples

Should unmarried couples be given greater rights?

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Resolution, the association of family justice professionals, has reignited the debate over whether unmarried couples should be given greater rights on relationship breakdown.

Resolution released survey results indicating that a majority of the population now favors increased rights for unmarried couples. The survey showed 59% support for enhanced legal protections for cohabitants, as 74% found current laws unfit for modern society.

In the light of these findings Resolution has repeated its call for a change in the law. The organization’s ‘Vision for Family Justice’ proposes financial remedies for eligible cohabitants in committed relationships upon separation.

So what exactly is the problem facing cohabitees on relationship breakdown, and what is being proposed to address the problem?

The problem of cohabitation breakdown

Current law treats cohabiting couples’ breakups as if they were unrelated individuals, lacking claims arising from their relationship. As a result, Resolution says, they face financial hardship, inequality and emotional distress.

Current law allows living together for decades, having children, and then walking away without financial responsibility after a relationship breakdown. Resolution argues this situation causes hardship, especially when a mother reduces or gives up working hours to raise a family.

When the Resolution survey asked cohabitees about their concerns in the event of a relationship ending, 35% said they feared having nowhere to live, (if a property is in one partner’s name the other partner has no automatic claim on it in the event of a break up). 

Many mistakenly believe long cohabitation amounts to a ‘common law marriage,’ falsely assuming rights similar to married couples.

Proposed rights for cohabitees

Contrary to a common misconception, no one suggests providing cohabitants with the same rights as married couples on marriage breakdown. There is no question therefore of the proposals devaluing marriage, as has been suggested in some quarters. But should unmarried couples be given greater rights?

As mentioned above, Resolution is proposing that cohabitants meeting eligibility criteria indicating a committed relationship would have a right to apply for certain financial remedies orders if they separate.

The sort of eligibility criteria envisaged would be that the couple had had a child together or had lived together for a specific number of years, as recommended by the Law Commission back in 2007.

The right to apply for financial remedies orders would be automatic unless the couple chooses to ‘opt out’. This, say Resolution, creates lesser risk than leaving couples to ‘opt in’, failure to do so disadvantaging only the financially weaker party.

Financial remedies for cohabitants mirror divorce orders but on a different, more limited basis, as proposed by Resolution.

The Law Commission proposed requiring the applicant to show the other party’s benefit or the applicant’s ongoing economic disadvantage. The value of any award would depend on the extent of the retained benefit or continuing economic disadvantage.

Resolution also consider that cohabitants should be able to apply for maintenance in their own right (as opposed to just child maintenance) for a limited period to reflect the economic advantages or disadvantages caused by the relationship which could not be accommodated by other types of orders.

In 2022 cohabiting couples accounted for almost 1 in 5 families in the UK. Resolution advocates for laws that align with modern society, offering solutions for all family structures, including those who are unmarried.

How can we help?

For further information on how we can help, please see our Unmarried Couples pages.

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