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Rights for cohabiting couples is long overdue say lawyers

Leading family lawyers are calling on the government to provide new legislation to protect the rights of cohabiting couples.

The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show that there were 3.3 million cohabiting couple families in the UK in 2016, more than double the number recorded in 1996. They are now the fastest growing family type.

In spite of this, cohabiting couples have very few automatic rights to protect their interests if their relationship breaks down. The family law group Resolution says a new legal framework for rights and responsibilities should be introduced as soon as possible.

It has conducted a survey that found that 98% of cohabitants thought they have the same legal rights as married couples. This is not the case.

They have few automatic legal rights, which can leave them vulnerable if their relationship with their partner breaks down.

A Resolution spokesperson said: “The law doesn't give people in this type of relationship any meaningful legal protection if they separate or if one of them dies.

“Even if one partner has given up work to care for children, or has contributed by supporting their partner in their career by running the home, often their contributions will not be recognised in law, especially if the children have already grown up and left home.”

Resolution wants to see a law that gives cohabitants protection if they meet certain criteria showing that they were in a committed relationship. They would then have the right to apply for financial orders if they separate. This right would be automatic unless couples choose to opt out.

The chairman of Resolution, Nigel Shepherd, said: “The court would be able to make the same types of orders as they do currently on divorce, but on a very different and more limited basis.

“Awards might include payments for child care costs to enable a primary carer parent to work.”

Resolution and other family lawyers have made similar calls on behalf of cohabiting couples in the past but so far the government has been reluctant to take action.

In the absence of any automatic legal protection, many couples draw up living together agreements that state in advance how their assets should be divided if their relationship fails. A few years ago the government started a campaign urging couples to draw up such agreements to cover things like finances, property and pensions.

Ownership of the family home is one of the most important issues. If it is in just one person’s name then the other partner could lose out. You may want to consider owning it as joint tenants or tenants in common which will make a huge difference to your rights.

If you don’t already have a will then you should draw one up as soon as possible. Otherwise your estate could pass to your relatives rather than your partner.

Unmarried fathers don’t automatically have parental responsibility for their children but they can acquire it with the agreement of the mother or by applying to a court. It is clearly better to deal with the matter while your relationship is strong rather than wait until after it has broken down.

Some people may feel embarrassed at first to be making such legal arrangements as it seems that they don’t fully trust each other. However, such concerns soon disappear and most couples end up feeling their relationship is stronger because both partners feel more secure.

Please contact us if you would like more information about living together agreements or any aspect of family law.